Even for those that predicted the Denver Nuggets would ultimately win an NBA championship, most surely knew that the Miami Heat would never back down.
The Heat escaped with a 111-108 win over the Nuggets in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday to tie the series at 1-1 and avoid a sweep.
Below are five major takeaways from Miami’s Game 2 victory.
These NBA Finals will be close
I still believe the Nuggets will collect their first NBA championship in franchise history. As Miami reminded everyone again in Game 2, however, underestimate them at their own peril.
They scrapped and clawed their way to win with the same mindset that allowed the No. 8 seed to dispatch a championship contender in the first round (Milwaukee), a legitimate playoff threat in the second round (New York), and a talented albeit underachieving contender in the Eastern Conference Finals (Boston).
Even with Denver not falling to complacency in Game 2, the Heat still found ways to win. I still expect the Nuggets to win the series in six games, but expect each game to be close.
Jimmy Butler made key plays, but perhaps a bigger performance awaits
Butler failed to nail a 3-pointer that could have become the dagger. He made up for it, however, by stopping Nuggets guard Jamal Murray on the final possession.
After Butler missed a 27-foot step-back jumper as the Heat held a 111-108 lead with 14.1 seconds left, Nuggets guard Bruce Brown grabbed the rebound and pushed the ball up the floor. Instead of calling a timeout to draw a play, Denver relied on Murray to take advantage of his playmaking skills against a Heat defense that did not have as much time to adjust.
Butler gave Murray little room to operate, however, while he tried to run a two-man game with Nikola Jokic. Moments later, Butler then contested Murray’s 3 with 1.2 seconds left before the shot hit the rim as time expired.
Butler finished with 21 points on only 7-for-19 shooting, nine rebounds, and four assists. Butler made some critical plays beyond rectifying his missed 3 with a defensive stop. He scored nine fourth-quarter points while tallying an assist and an offensive rebound. Given Butler’s post-season track record, look for him to perhaps carry over that strong fourth quarter into all of Game 3.
Heat’s shooters have a bounce-back game
This outcome seemed inevitable as soon as Game 1 ended. Miami’s Max Strus (14 points on a 4-for-10 clip from 3) and Duncan Robinson (10 points on a 4-for-5 clip, 2-for-3 from deep) all made key shots after shooting horrifically in Game 1.
Then, Strus went scoreless while missing all 10 of his attempts, including nine from 3-point range. Robinson also had only three points while shooting 1-for-6 from the field and 1-for-5 from deep. Meanwhile, Gabe Vincent posted similar numbers in Game 2 (23 points on 8-for-12 shooting, 4-for-6 from 3) as he did in Game 1 (19 points on 7-for-14 mark, 5-for-10 from deep).
This development happened during critical situations. Strus and Vincent both hit their first two shots while Miami opened the game with a 10-2 lead. Later, the Heat began the fourth quarter with a 10-2 run thanks to Robinson (two 3s, two layups) and Vincent (one 3).
So what changed from Game 1 to Game 2? Nothing, really. Strus and Robinson made mostly the same looks they missed in Game 1. The Heat rightfully looked for both of them to shoot in Games 1 and 2 through both makes and misses. And it helped that Denver confusingly closed out late on various rotations.
Jokic became more of a scorer than a passer
The Nuggets’ star seemingly did anything he wanted with timely hook shots, turnaround jumpers, and 3s. Jokic finished with 41 points while shooting 16-for-28 from the field, 2-for-5 from deep, and 7-for-8 from the free-throw line, along with 11 rebounds. But there’s a more notable Jokic statistic that should please the Heat. He only had four assists.
Jokic didn’t play selfishly. He often made the right basketball play. Miami still played effective enough defense to limit Jokic’s passing, which arguably fuels the Nuggets’ offense more than his scoring because the skill elevates his teammates and maximizes the team’s depth.
Murray (18 points), Aaron Gordon (12), and Bruce Brown (11) still cracked double figures. Had Jokic dished out a few more assists, though, perhaps Jeff Green (nine), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (six) Michael Porter Jr. (five) would have also cracked double figures. Perhaps Murray would have been even more dangerous, considering his strong scoring moments in Game 2.
The Heat didn’t necessarily allow Jokic to score, either. But through their zone defense and man-to-man coverages, the Heat clearly prioritized making the Nuggets have a less balanced offense than they unveiled in Game 1.
Miami Heat made the right move to start Kevin Love
On the surface, the lineup switch did not dramatically determine the outcome. After all, Love finished with only six points on 2-for-9 shooting and in 22 minutes after sitting the past three playoff games as a healthy scratch. The switch, however, created a dramatic ripple effect.
Let’s count the ways. Love became the primary defender on Jokic, which at least gave Bam Adebayo freedom to play free safety all over the court. Love didn’t necessarily slow down the Nuggets’ star because, well, who really can?
More importantly, though, Adebayo didn’t have to worry about being in all positions at once. While also posting 10 rebounds and two steals, Love helped improve the team’s spacing to help ensure the Heat’s perimeter threats had more room to cut and shoot. And Love kept the Heat in high spirits with his positive body language and encouragement.