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NBA Finals Game 2 Running Diary: Do the Nuggets take control or can the Heat bounce back?

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Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals went as a lot of people suspected it would.

Denver, in its first-ever Finals game, was in control throughout. The Nuggets led by as much as 21 points before closing out Miami in a 104-93 win on Thursday night.

Game 1 had several interesting subplots:

  • Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic dominating despite only taking five shots through the first three quarters.
  • Denver getting a strong game from 6’10” Aaron Gordon due in part to Miami’s lack of size across the board.
  • Heat star Jimmy Butler adding to a streak of subpar shooting performances dating back to Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
  • Miami setting a playoff record for fewest free throw attempts in a game. The Heat took just two free throws on Thursday. Miami in Game 1, though, finished 14/19 in the restricted area and 25/77 from everywhere else on the court.
  • Denver elected to let Miami big Bam Adebayo get whatever he wanted. Adebayo finished with 26 points, but he took a game- and career-high 25 shots.

So what happens in Game 2? Does Denver keep rolling on its way to the franchise’s first NBA championship? Does Miami battle back to grind out another playoff win?

I’d expect to see the Heat force the issue and try to manufacture points at the free throw line. Miami doesn’t have the offensive firepower to go shot for shot with Denver, so it’ll need to get to the foul line to keep up.

Jokic is likely to have another big game. What’s interesting with Jokic is some might say he needs to be more aggressive early on, but I think hitting teammates with pinpoint passes for easy buckets is just as “aggressive” as looking for your own shot.

It’s tough to see Miami winning after Game 1. Denver on Thursday shot under 30 percent from 3 and around 30 percent on “open 3s” — with a defender within 4-to-6 feet of the shooter. By their standards, the Nugget shot poorly in Game 1 and still won going away.

Miami has some adjustments to make. The Heat guarded the Jokic/Murray pick-and-roll with drop coverage for much of the game, which led to a slew of pull-up jumpers from Murray and open looks from 3 for Jokic when he popped out to the 3-point line in lieu of rolling to the basket.

Both teams have moves to make going into Game 2. Which team’s actions lead to the win remain to be seen.

Follow along tonight with another running diary.

Tip-off is shortly after 8 p.m.

1st Quarter

12:00: Heat make the first big adjustment of the series, bringing Kevin Love back into the starting lineup. Love hasn’t played since Game 5 of the East Finals. I’m not sure how much dusting off a guy in year 15 will help.

9:13: Just as we all thought, Max Strus and Gabe Vincent score Miami’s first 10 points. Heat lead 10-2. Denver is 1-5. Jokic has already taken as many shots as he did in the entire first half of Game 1.

8:48: Denver is missing a lot of easy looks. The Nuggets are 1-7 so far. Could be a theme to keep an eye on.

7:14: Jokic backs Adebayo down, looks like he’s gonna take a baby hook, and hits Gordon for an oop. Unreal.

6:56: Jimmy Butler posts up Jamal Murray and draws a shooting foul. Miami is about to equal its free throw attempts from Game 1. Butler takes and makes his first two free throws of the Finals.

5:16: Nuggets commit their fourth turnover of the quarter. Denver has been really sloppy with the ball early. The Nuggets look like the 8 seed so far tonight.

4:28: Jokic gets a bucket in the paint on his sixth shot of the quarter. He might need to go for 40-plus tonight the way the Nuggets look right now.

3:00: Strus hits his fourth 3 of the quarter. The record for 3s in a Finals game is nine, set by probably the first guy who came to mind.

1:35: Jokic “soars” to the basket for a layup. He’s already got 11 points on nine shots. He’s going for his right now.

0:00: Heat lead by three after 1. It feels like they should be up by more, but Denver (47.6 percent) ended up shooting better from the field than Miami (43.5). The Nuggets shot 9-14 after starting 1-7.

Second quarter

11:04: If Max Strus owned the first quarter, Denver’s Christian Braun has owned the early stages of the second. Braun, a rookie who won a national title at Kansas last season, has 4 points and 2 steals in three minutes.

10:12: Timeout Heat after a Jeff Green 3. Denver’s bench already has 14 points, equaling its output from Game 1. Jokic has sat the first couple of minutes of the second quarter, and the Nuggets have outscored the Heat 10-3 with him on the bench. 

9:56: Murray drains a 3 to push the Denver lead to 7. The Nuggets have outscored the Heat 19-3 in the last 4:15 of game time.

8:45: Vincent stops the bleeding with a 3 from the right wing. Miami is 6-10 from 3. That’s what’s keeping the Heat in the game.

8:18: Murray gets a steal off a Strus bobble and soars in for a two-handed smash to get the crowd hype. It’s Miami being sloppy with the ball now. The Heat has four turnovers in less than four minutes of play in the second quarter.

7:49: Another Murray jumper bumps the Denver lead to 12 and forces another Heat timeout. Miami is a minus-12 in the 3:42 that Butler has sat.

7:28: Butler’s first shot out of his break is a made corner 3. The Heat needed that REALLY badly.

6:33: Braun with a two-hand dunk off a feed from Murray. It’s like that first quarter never happened.

4:19: Gabe Vincent rips Bruce Brown and gets an And-1 on a foul by Braun. Vincent is gonna take Miami’s third free throw of the game. I expected the Heat to be stronger going to the basket and force the refs to make some calls. That hasn’t happened yet, partly because the team is shooting so well from 3, but they’re barely shooting 40 percent from the field now.

3:47: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope makes a dumb play and fouls Strus on a 28-foot 3 late in the shot clock. That one play is gonna help Miami double the number of free throws its taken so far tonight.

2:04: Vincent hits a floater to trim the Denver lead to five. The Heat. Won’t. Die!

:55.6: KCP is the beneficiary of a Vincent foul on a 3 late in the shot clock. Those are the worst fouls, man.

0:00: Denver ends the half with a six-point lead. Both teams made runs over the course of that half. Miami will need to stay hot from 3 to keep this competitive.

Third quarter

11:32: Vincent hits a corner make it 57-54 Denver. This might be the game where Miami is just unconscious from 3.

10:27: Jokic works Adebayo with a series of moves that leads to a short hook. Jokic put his butt on Bam like they were in the club and “Back That Azz Up” just came on.

9:21: Another Vincent 3!!! Denver’s lead is now 2. Michael Porter Jr. has shown massive improvement as a defender, but he was way out of position there.

9:09: Jokic commits a clear-path foul on Adebayo. Miami gets two free throws and the ball. Bam makes both to tie the game. That’s the kind of call that could change a game.

8:15: Adebayo gets right to the cup for a layup to tie the game at 66. Nice to see Miami start working toward the basket now.

7:29: There has been some comparison of Jokic to Tim Duncan. It’s no more evident than when Jokic doesn’t like a particular call.

5:02: Butler goes to the line and makes two free throws to trim the Denver lead to three. We’ve hit a rough patch. No one has made a field goal in 3:02.

0:00: Denver ends the third with an eight-point lead. Jokic has 31 points and only three assists. Miami is playing really hard. If the Heat can stay hot from 3, they can steal this game.

Fourth quarter

9:44: Duncan Robinson makes a driving layup (!!) to put the Heat up 88-85. It’s always somebody different for Miami.

7:23: Jokic hits a short shot in the paint to give him 35 for the game. Denver’s gonna need him to get 45.

6:06: Butler starting to feel it. He gets Aaron Gordon on a fake, hits a jumper and draws a foul. Miami now leads by 7. Miami’s defense has been great tonight to this point. This feels like a Heat win.

5:26: KCP gets called for another bad foul on a deep Kyle Lowry 3. He’s got five fouls, including two because of massive brainfarts. In a game where every point is crucial, Caldwell-Pope has given Miami six free points. Lowry hits all three freebies to put the Heat up 8.

5:14: Jokic throws the ball away against the Miami zone. Denver is all out of sorts right now.

4:53: Lowry and Adebayo run the pick and roll to perfection, leading to a Bam dunk, And-1. The Heat lead by 11 after the free throw. Miami is 9-10 in the fourth. It’s the Heat’s night.

3:38: Caleb Martin’s first make comes on a corner 3 to put Miami up 13. The Heat is shooting 51.5 percent from 3 tonight. Typical bounceback performance from Miami.

2:33: Hold on. Murray hits a 3 to cut the Heat lead to six. Denver won a game like this in the West Finals. Can it do it again.

2:12: Butler hits a jumper over Murray on a switch to push the lead back to eight. He’s still not shooting well (7-18), but he makes them when he needs to.

1:09: Murray buries a 3 from the left wing to make it 109-106 Miami. Denver is on an 11-2 run over the last few minutes.

:48.3: Adebayo drains two clutch free throws to put Miami up 5. Heat has to get stops now.

0:00: Miami survives as Murray misses a stepback 3 with Butler checking him.

The Heat tie the series 1-1 going back to Miami. It’s the first home loss for Denver in the playoffs. Ironically, both Denver and Miami finished below .500 on the road this season. The Heat offense caught fire in the fourth, shooting 11-16 in the frame to steal the win. This win could prove huge for the Heat. 

Jokic had a huge scoring night with 41 points, but he finished with a playoff-low four assists. Once again, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra put together a great scheme (minutes for Love, putting Butler on Murray, better play out of the zone defense, focus on manufacturing points at the free throw line) and got his team a win. Spoelstra opting to let Jokic get off limited the number of 3s Denver could generate for everybody else. Most of the Nuggets 28 3-point attempts came in transition. Denver’s halfcourt offense looked a lot different tonight from Game 1.

The pressure is on Denver. The Nuggets finished the regular season 19-22 on the road. Denver in the playoffs is 4-3 away from Denver. Miami this postseason is 6-2 at home, but has dropped its last two home contests. 

The Nuggets are still the more talented team, but Miami has already shown that talent can be overrated. Can the Heat ride their grit to a series lead?

We’ll find out on Wednesday.

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