The early made open shots from the Miami Heat may have been the omen.
The Heat raced to a 7-0 and later 10-2 lead in Game 2 of the NBA Finals off a 3-pointer from Max Strus and jump shots from Gabe Vincent. Despite the early blitz, the Denver Nuggets were able to recover and even managed to take a 15-point lead with 5:02 left before halftime.
But Miami was relentless.
They kept on chipping at the deficit and eventually took the lead over the Nuggets early in the fourth quarter. Vincent (team-high 23 points) was a thorn to Denver’s side for much of Game 2, while Duncan Robinson took over for Strus in the fourth quarter not just with his 3-point shooting, but also with his drives to the basket.
In the end, the Heat tied the series after six players scored at least nine points and knocked down 17 of their 35 3-point attempts as a team. Much of it came off open shots, as Miami found themselves open after deliberately probing the Nuggets defense and racing to their spots after offensive rebounds. The Heat may have lost the rebounding battle, but Miami secured the possessions that mattered the most in the end.
Denver may remain undeterred, but Game 2 saw their invincibility dissipate. Nikola Jokic led all scorers with 41 points, but his four assists might as well make it seem like a bad offensive night. Besides, three of the Nuggets’ four losses came when Jokic scored more than 40 points.
Two games in, it seems like the battle in the trenches begins with passing. Yes, the winner of both games in these NBA Finals finished with more assists, but the bigger picture here is passing that gets the ball moving. Denver’s struggles with their passing in Game 2 were reflected in their lower assists and higher turnovers, as the Heat resorted to zone defense and pretty much dared Jokic to beat them on his own.
Jokic and the Nuggets pretty much fell into that trap because… they had no choice. Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were misfiring, Aaron Gordon was good but not great, and Jamal Murray caught fire late and nearly led a comeback so all Jokic could do was become the offense.
Defensively, Denver was getting beat on drives and giving up shots and many of these defensive breakdowns confirmed the worst fears of Nuggets head coach Mike Malone. Malone understood that Miami had simply not made some of their open shots and while his opponents got the message, it seemed as if his words had fallen on Denver’s deaf ears.
Perhaps, it also boils down to execution. The shooting fouls the Nuggets committed allowed the Heat to get to the free throw line, while the careless offensive fouls handed the ball back to Miami for even more scoring opportunities. Malone’s decision not to call a timeout will be debated, as the merits of having the ball advanced to the half court may have given them an even better shot to tie the game, among other things. The Heat will always pride themselves as hard workers so Denver might as well work smarter.
Opportunities are there for the taking in Miami, as the Heat themselves lost their last two home postseason games to the Boston Celtics after winning the first six against the Milwaukee Bucks and the New York Knicks. The Nuggets have a few days to rest and get a good look at the areas they need to sharpen up, because this series can still go either way.
The Denver Nuggets can’t get fooled again into thinking that they have control of this series, because the Miami Heat have always been comfortable with playing from behind and have no qualms of doing so. Game 2 was proof of that and the Nuggets have to make the right decisions themselves rather than feeling sorry for themselves and playing into how the Heat want them to play.