October 4, 2023

Heat loses physical combat against Nuggets and time is running out to make adjustments

MIAMI – The Miami Heat is at its best when they keep you from accessing your best performance, and winning the NBA Finals, allowing the Denver Nuggets to achieve historic results and winning the physical game is unacceptable.

The Heat didn’t play Game 3 on their terms, watching Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray dance across the floor to the tune of their own creation, and the Heat continued to clap on the 1s and 3s.

Missed rebounds, missed shots and bodies falling to the floor was an unexpected sight for the Heat in their first home game in nearly 10 years. Maybe they relaxed a bit and stole the home field advantage for the fourth series in a row.

Perhaps they thought they had taken over the spirit of the Nuggets in Game 2 and saw them as a more refined team than a physical team.

But the Nuggets aren’t punks here, and they dished out a beating that, hopefully for Miami, gave these upstarts some sense. “No rebounds, no rings,” Heat culture, all those things are in the franchise’s ethos, but they didn’t get the memo Wednesday night.

The 109-94 Nuggets win not only restored Denver’s home court, but seemingly took away some of the toughness the Heat has rightly established. The numbers, even beyond Jokic’s 10-32-21-10 night and Murray’s 10-34-10 show, were atrocious.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler tries to pass the ball as Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope defends during Game 3 of the 2023 NBA Finals on June 7, 2023 in Miami.  (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler appears to pass the ball as Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope defends during Game 3 of the 2023 NBA Finals on June 7, 2023 in Miami.  (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler tries to pass the ball as Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope defends during Game 3 of the 2023 NBA Finals on June 7, 2023 in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The Heat was outscored by 25 and grabbed only 33 total rebounds – with Bam Adebayo (17) collecting more than the rest of his teammates combined. The Heat can lose games because opponents are more talented than them – despite all the talk about the underdeveloped players making such a huge impact, there is a significant disparity in talent between the two teams.

But they’re not supposed to be muscular on their own floor, or anyone else’s floor. Not this Heat team, not ever. It was said ad nauseam and repeated by Erik Spoelstra in the aftermath. Every statement sounds more and more poignant and devastating.

“We lost a lot of physical 50/50 or ball-in-the-air or ball-on-the-floor fights during the game, at key moments,” said Spoelstra. “When the moments could have been swing moments, they came up with those plays.

“On our best version, we find ways to overcome that, make it difficult for them and then certainly don’t lose the vast majority of those physical fights, the 50/50 fights, the ball-in-the-air, ball-on- battles on the floor.”

Spoelstra knows going shot for shot with the Nuggets will result in a quick exit in what could be a competitive, up-in-the-air series. The Nuggets have too much firepower and have Michael Porter Jr. still not derailed.

But Miami is here because it plays a version of flawless basketball. Thus, the heat survived Milwaukee and Boston.

Flawless basketball can’t paint all missed shots. It felt like, as many times as Jimmy Butler and Adebayo got there, they couldn’t convert at the speed required. Butler kept commenting that he was getting “two feet in the paint,” and he was right.

According to the box score, Butler led the Heat with 28 points and shot a respectable 11-for-24, but missed more than his fair share of gimmes along the way. It would help if Max Strus and Gabe Vincent didn’t combine to miss 14 of 17 shots with 8 of 10 triples rattling, but it’s hard to set realistic expectations.

If there’s one positive going into Game 4, Butler, who didn’t look 100 percent and stumbled off the podium after losing, got in the spots he wanted against smaller defenders. The downside to that is that the Nuggets didn’t compromise their defense, didn’t help too much, and let the Heat shooters wander around the perimeter.

If that’s the case, Butler will have to do what Miami did with Jokić in Game 2, become much more offensive and much more efficient.

“Take the pictures I know I can take,” Butler said. “Stay aggressive. It is the same. I think if guys were open like I said I always have to pass it on to them. I will continue to do that. But if I get two feet in the paint, I’m expected to shoot a layup or a floater and make it.”

Usually someone comes out big for the Heat, especially shooting. But shooting can play no role if you get hit on the glass. Aaron Gordon was a bully and Murray’s 10 rebounds were far more than any other member of Miami’s first five without Adebayo.

“Sometimes I think for us, when we lose a lot of those physical fights, the efforts, the loose balls, the rebounding fights, that’s our identity, and sometimes that can affect the flow of the rest of your game,” Spoelstra said .

“That’s no excuse. I think what we’ve proven time and time again is that we can win and find different ways to win, no matter if we have confidence, no matter if the ball goes in. We are determined to influence the game and find some other solution or some other way to win a game regardless of whether the ball goes in.”

The toughness should be non-negotiable and it has become a variable.

“We didn’t give our best tonight. I feel like we just need to come out with more energy and effort, and that’s correctable,” Butler said. “That’s for us as a group. No X’s and O’s can solve that.

“So come out, duck to the ground, get loose balls, get defensive rebounds and maybe, just maybe, it would have been a different game.”

Butler was Murray’s main defender early on and didn’t really have the physicality to make him uncomfortable with those potential pick-and-rolls with Jokic. It’s a real chess game at this point in the series, but it feels like Miami has only so many more adjustments to make as this thing progresses.

Jokić as a distributor became a theme again, and even when Miami was close, it never felt like the game was being played by the Heat’s rules. At some point the adrenaline would run out and the execution would take center stage.

The Nuggets’ execution is a relationship they have with themselves, rarely with the adversary. Miami’s gift in its execution is to get your C-game out of you, or worse.

It seems clear that the series will be decided by that simple fact and Miami made itself much worse by being a little too cute in Wednesday’s game.

But being cute doesn’t work if you have to win ugly.

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