It didn’t matter much in Game 1; the Nuggets were on cruise control and while the Heat made it interesting, they couldn’t really make it close. Game 2 was a different story as the Heat stormed back from down 15 in the third quarter to steal a game in Denver with a 36-25 fourth where the Heat shot nearly 70 per cent from the floor. It was all very concerning, leaving Nuggets head coach Michael Malone calling out his team’s effort.
That wasn’t an issue in Game 3 as his club got in the mud against the Heat, who have been successfully slowing the Nuggets’ pace of play in an effort to limit the chances for Denver’s offence, which is No.1 among playoff teams and was fifth in the regular season.
And the fourth quarter? It didn’t really matter as the Nuggets used a 29-15 run in the third quarter to take a 14-point lead into the fourth and were able to keep the Heat at arm’s length from there.
The Nuggets got historic performances from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, who became the first teammates in Finals history to record triple doubles in the same game. Jokic finished with 32 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists for the first 30-20 triple double in Finals history. Murray contributed 34 points, 10 rebounds and his third straight game with 10 assists.
Jimmy Butler had 28 points for Miami but was 11-of-24 from the floor as Miami shot 37 per cent from the floor as a group, while the Nuggets shot 51.2 per cent from the floor.
The Nuggets take a 2-1 edge going into Game 3 on Friday.
JAMAL MURRAY MAKES SHOTS
After an even first quarter, the Heat looked like they were poised to put a gap into the Nuggets midway through the second quarter. Caleb Martin — coming off the bench for the second game in a row — hit a pair of consecutive threes and then helped turn a Jokic turnover into a fast break. One of those threes was wide open after Murray missed his rotation.
The fans in Miami were ignited and the Heat were up by four in the space of 60 seconds. In a game that figured to be as tight as Game 2, every bit of momentum mattered. But Murray gave the ‘stay calm’ signal to his bench, then stepped into a contested three dribbling hard to his right with the shot clock winding down and made it — a play with a degree of difficulty of 9.5/10.
He then took a dribble hand-off from Jokic going to his left and made that a moment later, and hit another three working off Jokic again. The latter two were more lightly contested, but they were crucial to keeping the Nuggets from getting stuck in the mud on the road. He made some strong defensive plays on Butler, who was trying to attack the smaller Murray at every chance.
Murray was largely limited by the Heat in Game 2 as he scored just 18 points and he came out firing early, with eight in the first quarter and 20 in the first half. He picked up right where he left off in the third quarter too, as his defence and playmaking helped Denver open up a double-digit lead — the first of the game — in the opening minutes of the third quarter.
“I feel like I didn’t bring the intensity the moment called for,” Murray said of his Game 2 performance. “Not just me, but everybody.”
WHAT ABOUT MICHAEL PORTER JR.?
Did you know that the Nuggets have three players on ‘max’ contracts? Yes, Jokic and yes Murray, both of whom are proving good value, it seems safe to say. But the third is Porter Jr., who is in the first of a five-year, $179.3 million contract that he signed even after missing his rookie season with a back problem and prior to him having another back surgery that cost him all but nine games of the 2021-22 season. The lure is the prospect of teaming a 6-foot-10 dead eye shooter alongside Murray and Jokic in the prime of their careers.
Porter Jr. flashed his potential during the Nuggets playoff runs in 2019-20 and 2020-21 when he shot 39 per cent from deep on good volume. Offensively he could be Klay Thompson to the Murray-Jokic two-man game.
Porter Jr. shooting 3-of-17 through Games 1 and 2 with some suspect defence is not what the Nuggets were banking on. His best moment might have come in the third quarter when he got an offensive rebound, missed the putback but kept the ball alive long enough that Jokic could score on a tip-in. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter and finished with two points on 1-of-7 shooting and is now 3-of-19 from deep in the series.
WHO WOULD STEP UP FIRST?
Each of Miami and Denver have made it to the Finals on the back of their stars ,and in Game 3 all of Jokic, Murray, Adebayo and Butler showed up. The foursome combined to score 116 points, but no team gets this deep in the post-season without key contributions throughout the roster – Duncan Robinson’s 10-point fourth quarter in Game 2 comes to mind.
But in the first half of Game 3 there was very little of that, other than Martin’s eight-point flurry in the second quarter. The Nuggets got it started with some nice minutes from rookie Christian Braun who scored on a nice cut for a pass from Aaron Gordon (who finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and five assists) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shook off his scoreless first half to finally find the range on a jumper. Suddenly, the Nuggets were up 16 with two minutes to play in the fourth.
Another score by Braun off a cut that led to a lay-up put the Nuggets up 17, and a steal and slam by the rookie on the next play gave the Nuggets a 19-point edge — just the jolt the Nuggets were looking for.
A Robinson triple and Butler jumper in the last 37 seconds of the third cut that to 14, but Denver was in control. An assist, a three-point play early in the fourth, another physical finish on the break and some strong defence on Butler helped Denver keep it that way as the hard-playing rookie finished with 15 points on eight shots in 19 minutes.
BIG UPS TO BAM
As the primary defender against one of the best offensive players of all time in Jokic, Heat centre Bam Adebayo has his hands full. But the Heat need him to find a way to contribute on offecse too.
It’s a nearly impossible job, but Adebayo has delivered.
You can’t judge him based on Jokic’s numbers. The Heat are being judicious in their use of double teams because they don’t want to have Jokic pick them apart with his passing, so Adebayo has to deal with Jokic alone more than is feasible while also being active when he gets out on switches. It’s all part of what has made Adebayo a four-time all-NBA defender, but his offence hasn’t suffered as he’s been given the green light to go at Jokic and make the Denver star defend – not his strength.
Coming into the game Adebayo was averaging 23.5 points on 54 per cent shooting, along with nearly five assists a game. But you wonder if his legs are feeling the weight of all that work: Adebayo finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds but was 7-of-21 from the field.