MIAMI — The Big Golden Ball is increasingly appearing in the Denver Nuggets’ vision, and like everything the Miami Heat wanted to accomplish in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, it feels like an unobtainable mirage.
The Heat are looking at some inescapable realities, capped by a 108-95 loss to the Nuggets on Friday night at home — and an elimination loss.
First of all, they’ve lost four straight games at home, with that Boston Celtics Game 3 East final blowout that felt like months ago and overall they’ve lost six of eight games after a start booming in this playoff series.
But beyond the numbers, an opportunity presented itself before the Heat in Game 4 to even the series and send real doubt into the minds of the favorite Nuggets.
Something special was demanded of the Heat. Not just good or excellent, but special. Transcendent.
Games 4 recently saw Steph Curry set the TD Garden on fire with a shower of triples, and Giannis Antetokounmpo pushing out an ailing leg to produce arguably the greatest defensive play in the history of the sport.
In years past, Michael Jordan’s highest Finals game was a 55-point special…in Game 4. Magic Johnson’s junior-junior skyhook? Game 4.
Jimmy Butler was good, and within moments it felt like magic was happening. But he’s already done so much in the playoffs, 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, it almost feels like asking too much of a man with a swollen ankle that robbed him of explosiveness and basic strength.
Transcendence was necessary. Good with great moments is not quite good enough.
The Heat could see it, and sometimes felt close enough to taste it, but couldn’t quite wrap their arms around the moment. There wasn’t much of a panic, and the Heat were competitive when it looked like they were on the verge of getting thrown out of their own building multiple times.
But close was as close as they could get – and they probably got as far as their talent can reasonably take them, as far as Erik Spoelstra’s masterful coaching can move them. They need more, and more isn’t on the floor or on the sidelines.
Maybe that comes in the form of Damian Lillard, who has listed the Heat as a destination in case he gets traded from Portland, and he could definitely fit in nicely with the pack of dogs the Heat employ.
The Heat needed someone to put real pressure on Jamal Murray after his 30-point triple-double, at both ends of the court, a true weapon that can only be sought in so many ways before the excellence of the basketball never moved.
Gabe Vincent will definitely get paid by someone this offseason, but he had some unforgettable home games in the Finals — on Friday he went 1-for-6 and had a minus-21. Max Strus was again a non-factor in all three losses, taking his total on those nights to a cringe-worthy 1 for 21.
Receiving unexpected sparks from Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love closed the gap, but it was extended when Aaron Gordon (27 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and Bruce Brown (21 points) played the games of their lives. Gordon, of course, is a former lottery pick outplayed as No. 1 in Orlando but perfectly nestled in the Nuggets system as a defender and opportunistic scorer.
The Heat did almost everything right by defending Nikola Jokić and Murray, not allowing a repeat of their historic third game; but in those little crevices of a game plan, the fine print that can only be read with a magnifying glass, allowing Gordon to hit three first-half triples is almost inexcusable.
Brown just put the finishing touches on a career night, with 11 of 21 in the fourth quarter when the Heat were desperate to find a silver lining.
“Every time we felt like we got it at six or eight, they were able to push it to 12,” Spoelstra said. “It was definitely a frustrating part of the game. Brown was a big part of – some of his random drives and playing in the middle of the paint when you expect it to be Murray or someone else.
Spoelstra was more spirited than ever after the narrow loss, not wanting to delve into the post-mortem possibilities or the overarching emotions that come with crushing final defeats and the realization that anything can be done but that still doesn’t guarantee anything. apart from a good effort.
“All we’re going to focus on is getting this thing back to the 305. Get this thing back to Miami. And things can change very quickly,” Spoelstra said. “I said guys, feel what you want to feel tonight. It’s okay. You probably shouldn’t sleep tonight for a long time. I don’t think anyone will. We have an incredibly competitive squad. We We did it all the hard way, and that’s how it will have to be done now, again.
Going back to 305 hasn’t meant anything positive in a long time, with their best outing being a heartbreaking Game 6 loss to the Celtics on a Derrick White tip. Sure, what followed was another show of resilience for Miami in Game 7, but what resilience can be counted on when this is Miami’s natural setting?
At some point, you have to invoke excellence. Bam Adebayo had some lightning moments, beating Jokić to the ground for a crowd-shaking dunk, but he also had seven turnovers – one shy of Denver’s entire roster.
And with the shooters going cold again, as the Heat shot 32 percent from 3, there’s less and less chance for the Heat to pick up a win, let alone more than one.
“No, I won’t [force shots]”, Butler said. “I have too much faith in my guys. Their shots will go down. They’ve been the reason we’ve won so many games, and I won’t let that faith in them waver. I’m going to keep playing basketball the right way, trusting those guys, and we’re always going to live with the outcome.
In time, we’ll look back to this Denver Nuggets postseason as one of the greatest runs in NBA history. The only reason we haven’t done it yet is because we didn’t predict it. It’s hard to see Milwaukee fare much better, not to mention the infuriating Boston Celtics — so focusing on the Heat when a lucky eighth seed sent to the slaughterhouse is a mistake.
And the heat colliding with that level of focus and determination, all hands and more were needed. And who knows if a healthy Tyler Herro would help, but a beater is nothing but a target.
If any team is capable of making it a series, it’s these guys. They’re too stubborn to see what’s in front of them and maybe too wise to recognize what they’re missing.
“Yeah, it’s going to be inspiring pieces. You pile up inspirational game after inspirational game,” Spoelstra said. “Then we’re going to pile a bunch of other games like this into Game 5. Our guys love that kind of deal with the stakes and the context of everything. We’re not even going to think about what’s after that. All we’re focused on is bringing this thing back to Miami.
They don’t think, but they see what they are up against.