MIAMI – The Miami Heat are at their best when they make sure you can’t get to your best performances, and to win the NBA Finals, allow the Denver Nuggets to have historic outings and win the game physical is unacceptable.
The Heat didn’t play Game 3 on their terms, watching Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray dance all over the floor to the beat of their own creation, and the Heat kept cheering on 1 and 3.
Missed rebounds, missed shots and bodies hitting the ground were an unexpected sight for the Heat in their first home Finals game in nearly 10 years. Maybe they loosened up a bit, stealing home-court advantage for the fourth straight series.
Maybe they thought they took the spirit of the Nuggets in Game 2 and saw them as a finer-than-physical team.
But the Nuggets aren’t punks here, and they handed out a beating that hopefully for Miami gave these upstarts some sense. “No rebounds, no rings,” Heat culture, all of those things are in the franchise ethos, but they didn’t get the memo Wednesday night.
The Nuggets’ 109-94 victory not only reset Denver’s field, but seemingly took away some of the mystique of toughness the Heat have rightfully established. The numbers, even more so than Jokić’s 32-21-10 night and Murray’s 34-10-10, were abysmal.
The Heat were outshot by 25, picking up just 33 total rebounds – Bam Adebayo (17) picking up more than the rest of his teammates combined. The Heat can lose games because opponents are more talented than them – despite all the talk of undrafted players having such a huge impact, there is a huge disparity in talent between the two teams.
But they’re not supposed to be more muscular in their homes, or anyone else’s. Not this Heat team, ever. This was stated and repeated ad nauseam by Erik Spoelstra in the post-game. Each statement sounded more and more searing and damning.
“We lost a lot of physical 50/50 or ball in the air, ball on the ground battles throughout the game at key moments,” Spoelstra said. “When the moments could have been swing moments, they were making up these games.
“In our best version, we find ways to overcome that, to make it difficult for them and not to lose the overwhelming majority of those physical battles, the 50/50 battles, the ball in the air, the ball on – ground battles.
Spoelstra knows that going blow for blow with the Nuggets will result in a quick exit in what could be a competitive, up-and-coming series. The Nuggets have too much firepower and still haven’t scouted Michael Porter Jr..
But Miami is there because it plays an error-free version of basketball. That’s how the Heat survived Milwaukee and Boston.
Error-free basketball can’t cook in every miss in the paint. It was like so often Jimmy Butler and Adebayo got there, they couldn’t convert at the required pace. Butler kept noting that he had “two feet in the paint,” and he was right.
The box score shows Butler led the Heat with 28 points and shot a respectable 11-for-24, but he missed more than his share of giveaways along the way. It would help if Max Strus and Gabe Vincent didn’t combine to miss 14 of 17 shots with 8 of 10 triples, but it’s hard to gauge realistic expectations.
If there’s one bright spot ahead of Game 4, Butler, who didn’t look 100% and limped off the podium after the loss, got the spots he wanted against smaller defenders . The downside is that the Nuggets didn’t compromise their defense, didn’t help too much, and let the Heat’s shooters roam the perimeter.
If that’s the case, Butler will have to do what Miami did to Jokić in Game 2, become a lot more offensive and a lot more efficient.
“Take the shots I know I can do,” Butler said. “Stay aggressive. It’s the same thing. I think if the guys were open, like I said, I still have to pass them. I will do it continually. But if I have two feet in the paint, I’m expected to shoot a layup or a floater, and I’m expected to do that too.
Usually someone comes in big for the Heat, especially shooting. But shooting can’t be a factor when you get hit on the glass. Aaron Gordon was a bully and Murray’s 10 rebounds were far more than any other member of Miami’s Adebayo-less top five.
“I just think sometimes for us when we lose a lot of these physical battles, the effort plays, the loose balls, the rebound battles, that’s who we are, and sometimes that can affect how the rest of the game plays out. your game,” Spoelstra said.
“That’s no excuse. I think what we’ve proven time and time again is that we can win and find different ways to win whether we have confidence or not, whether the ball goes in or not. We we are determined to have an impact on the game and find a different solution or a different way to win a game, whether the ball goes in or not.
Tenacity is supposed to be a non-negotiable and has become a variable.
“We didn’t play our best tonight. I feel like we just need to come out with more energy and effort, and that’s fixable,” Butler said. “It depends on us as a group. No X and O can solve this problem.
“So get out, dive on the floor, get some loose balls, get some defensive rebounds and maybe, just maybe, it would have been a different game.”
Butler was Murray’s main defender early on and didn’t quite establish the physique to make him uncomfortable on those potential pick-and-rolls with Jokić. It’s a real game of chess at this point in the series, but it feels like Miami doesn’t have many more adjustments to make as this thing progresses.
Jokić as a distributor again became a theme, and even when Miami was close, it never seemed like the game was being played by Heat rules. At some point the adrenaline would run out and the execution would take center stage.
Running the Nuggets is a relationship they have with themselves, rarely with the opponent. Miami’s gift in its execution is to get you out of your C game, or worse.
It seems clear the series will be decided by this simple fact and Miami made matters worse by being a little too cute in Wednesday’s game.
But being cute doesn’t work when you’re supposed to win ugly.