MIAMI — The enormous gold ball is becoming increasingly visible to the Denver Nuggets, and just like the Heat’s NBA Finals Aspirations, they appear to be a distant mirage in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
The Heat are staring at several unpleasant facts, the worst of which being their 108-95 home loss to the Nuggets on Friday night.
After a thrilling start to this playoff run, they’ve already lost six straight games after winning the first four at home. That Game 3 East finals demolition of the Boston Celtics seems like a lifetime ago.
The Miami Heat had a chance to even the series in Game 4 and put genuine doubt into the minds of the favored Nuggets, regardless of the numbers.
The Heat needed to deliver something truly exceptional. Superior to good or superb; unique. Transcendent.
In recent Game 4s, we’ve seen Steph Curry light up the TD Garden with a barrage of three-pointers and Giannis Antetokounmpo shake off an injured leg to make what is widely considered the greatest defensive play in NBA history.
Michael Jordan’s previous high in Finals scoring was a 55-point performance. The fourth game took place. A skyhook between Magic Johnson’s juniors? Game 4.
Jimmy Butler was effective, and there were times when it seemed like magic might happen. But he’s already done so much in the playoffs that asking for 25 points, 7 boards, and 7 assists from a man whose bum ankle limits his explosiveness and foundation strength seems excessive.
It was crucial to go further. Even better, with some truly outstanding features is good enough.
The Heat could see it and sometimes even get a taste of it, but they couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. Even though they appeared to be on the point of being run out of their building on many occasions, the Heat never truly panicked and remained competitive.
However, they were unable to come much closer, and they have likely progressed as far as their skill and Erik Spoelstra’s great coaching can take them. They need more, but there is yet to be any available on the field or bench.
It could be Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, who has Miami on his trade wish list and would be a great addition to the Heat’s current gang of misfits.
After Jamal Murray’s 30-point triple-double, the Heat needed someone to pressure him on defense and offense. Murray is a true weapon, and there are only so many ways to scout for him before he reaches his full potential as a basketball player.
Even though Gabe Vincent has had a couple of forgettable home games in the Finals (he went 1-for-6 and was a minus-21 on Friday), he will undoubtedly get paid by someone this offseason. Max Strus has been ineffective in all three defeats, making his batting average in those games humiliating(1-for-21).
Unexpected sparks from Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love helped close the deficit, but Aaron Gordon (27 ppg, 7 rpg, 6 ast) and Bruce Brown (21 ppg) played lights-out to push the lead back out. Of course, Gordon is a former lottery pick who struggled as a No. 1 overall pick in Orlando but fits in wonderfully with the Nuggets’ defensive and offensive schemes.
The Heat nearly perfected their defense of Nikola Joki and Murray, preventing a rematch of their historic Game 3 performance. However, allowing Gordon to make three triples in the first half is virtually unacceptable in the nooks and crannies of a game plan, the fine print that can only be read with a magnifying glass.
The final 11 of Brown’s 21 points came in the fourth quarter when the Heat were desperately clinging to whatever semblance of hope they had.
Spoelstra said that every time his team thought they had the lead down to six or eight, the other team would extend the score to 12. That was a very aggravating segment of the game. With Brown’s help, Murray was able to make a number of plays in the paint that caught onlookers off guard.
Spoelstra remained combative after the close defeat, refusing to go into postmortems or the overwhelming emotions that accompany crushing losses in the Finals and the understanding that anything is possible. However, it still doesn’t guarantee anything other than a strong effort.
Getting it back to the 305 is our only concern for the time being. Bring it back to Miami, please. Spoelstra remarked, “And things can change very quickly.” Let your emotions run wild tonight, and I advised the lads. The situation is fine. It would help if you didn’t get too much sleep tonight. I seriously doubt that anyone will. Our team is full of fierce competitors. Everything we’ve done up until now has been the hard way, and it will have to be done again in the same fashion.
Returning to the 305 hasn’t meant anything for a long time, with their greatest performance being a Game 6 loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals on a Derrick White tip-in. Of course, Miami responded with yet another display of resiliency in Game 7, but how often can you bank on that from Miami when that’s their natural environment?
You’ll need to muster your best effort eventually. Bam Adebayo had his flashes of brilliance, such as when he raced down the court and dunked on Joki to the delight of the raucous crowd, but he also committed seven turnovers (one fewer than Denver’s whole squad).
The Heat shot just 32% from beyond the arc, leaving them with fewer and fewer opportunities to come away with a victory, let alone several victories.
Butler responded, “No, I won’t do it [force shots]. I believe in my team too much. They will be unsuccessful in their attempts to shoot down. I will not lose faith in them because they have won many games for us. Not! I’m going to keep playing basketball the correct way, keep inspiring those guys, and we’ll have to deal with the consequences.
This run by the Denver Nuggets in the NBA playoffs will go down in history as one of the best. We haven’t done so because we didn’t foresee it happening. The Milwaukee Bucks aren’t expected to fare much better, and the Boston Celtics are a pain to watch, so viewing the Heat as a lucky eighth seed doomed to slaughter is a stretch.
In order to counter the Heat’s intensity and resolve, every available resource had to be utilized. Who knows if a healthy Tyler Herro would be of any use, but a beat-up one serves as little more than a moving target.
The odds are high that this group can force a series. They are either too intelligent to admit what they are missing or too stubborn to recognize what is there in front of their eyes.
Yes, these will be moving stage productions. You have a knack for stacking inspiring plays on top of each other, as Spoelstra put it. Then, for Game 5, we’ll use a lot more stacks of similar plays. The stakes and overall setting of the deal appeal greatly to our men. We are not even going to consider what comes next. Our only concern is returning it to Miami.
They don’t have a clue, but they can see how tough the situation is.