The Miami Heat are in trouble.
Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are playing the best basketball of their careers for the Denver Nuggets in these NBA Finals and it looks like nothing can stop them.
Denver’s dynamic duo powered them to a 109-94 win in Game 3 at the Kaseya Center and they now own a 2-1 lead over Miami. The win not only allowed Denver to reclaim home court advantage in this series, but also served as a major confidence boost for the West’s top seed.
A victory of this manner typically turns the tide of a best-of-seven and is even a virtual knockout punch on some occasions, though it is too soon to count out the Heat and their head coach Erik Spoelstra.
Time after time in these playoffs, the 52-year-old Spoelstra has found a way to outsmart opponents and propel this eighth seeded Miami team that is full of underdogs to the NBA Finals. He pulled off his latest feat in the Heat’s Game 2 win against the Nuggets, moving Kevin Love into the starting line-up for Caleb Martin to address the physicality of Denver’s power forward Aaron Gordon.
Furthermore, his belief in Miami’s role players after a poor showing in Game 1 did not wane. He instead doubled down on them in Game 2 where reserve Duncan Robinson’s 10-point burst over a mere two minutes in the fourth quarter allowed them to steal the win.
Come Game 4, Spoelstra will need to have the Heat ready to respond once more.
Defense should be a priority, albeit it is understandably difficult to completely contain Jokic and Murray. The best that Miami can do is make them work for their points in an attempt to tire them out and it will be interesting to see what kind of defense Spoelstra will deploy. Their 2-2-1 trap has been an effective defensive tool so far and it is probable that they will continue to utilize this with some added tweaks.
On offense, the Heat are likely to continue living–and dying–by the three-pointer as they have throughout this postseason run. While it is difficult to control their three-point percentage on a night-to-night basis, what is within Miami’s control are the initiators of their offense, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
Butler (28) and Adebayo (22) combined for 50 points in Game 3, but both of them shot poorly as they managed to hit only 18 of their combined 45 field goal attempts. The Heat will need these two multiple-time NBA All-Stars to shoot more efficiently to keep them within striking distance of Denver down the stretch. This, in turn, will give their shooters a chance to win the contest ala Robinson in Game 2.
Miami’s role players will have to leave everything on the floor as well. With the exception of a few games in their Eastern Conference duel with the Boston Celtics, the Heat have always outhustled their opponents in this playoff run.
However, the Nuggets’ rookie reserve Christian Braun gave them a taste of their own medicine in Game 3 with 15 points on seven-of-eight field goal shooting. Braun was all over the floor in Denver’s latest win as he attacked the basket with impunity and his energy disrupted the flow of Miami’s offense all night long.
Martin, Robinson, Gabe Vincent, and Max Strus will have to repay Spoelstra’s unending belief in them and match, or even exceed, the intensity of Braun and the Nuggets’ other bench players come Game 4 if they are to tie this series at 2-2.
Things are only going to get harder from here on out for the Heat, although if there’s anything that these last few months have taught the rest of the league, it is that they should never be overlooked. The tactical genius of Spoelstra always puts them in a position to compete regardless of the talent disparity, but it remains to be seen if they can outmaneuver this Denver team that is playing at an all-time level.