The Miami Heat like to talk about doing things the hard way, but a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals might be too much for even them to overcome.
Having entered Friday night’s Game 4 trailing in a series for the first time these playoffs, the Heat faced the possibility of losing and going down by a daunting margin. Only one team, the 2016 Cavaliers, has ever recovered from being down 3-1 to win the championship. With the series heading back to Denver for Game 5, that is the improbable task in front of these Heat.
“We’ve done everything the hard way, and that’s the way it’s going to have to be done right now, again,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Get this thing back to Miami, and things can shift very quickly.”
After taking Game 2 on the road, the Heat let home-court advantage slip away by losing Games 3 and 4 at home. Game 3 was a listless performance punctuated by the garbage-time clearing of the benches and headlined by a historic outing by Nuggets stars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, who became the first teammates to post 30-point triple-doubles in a single game. After Wednesday’s game, Spoelstra critiqued his team’s effort and intentionality.
The Heat lost Game 4,105-91, but their effort was commendable. Nearly every time the Nuggets appeared to be on the brink of another blowout win, the Heat clawed back into the game. Trailing 13 entering the fourth quarter, the Heat cut the deficit to five when Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo scored five straight points on a layup and free throws. With Jokic in foul trouble (he picked up his fifth foul with 9:24 to go in the fourth quarter), the Heat were threatening to steal the win and even the series.
But the Nuggets responded with a battery of cuts, layups and pull-up jumpers. Jokic checked back in with four minutes left as Denver nursed a nine-point lead. Bruce Brown scored nine of Denver’s next 12 points and the Nuggets held on to the win.
Unlike Game 3, in which Jokic and Murray outshined everyone else on the court, the Nuggets won Game 4 because of their role players. Jokic, bothered by a troublesome Miami defense, finished with just 23 points on 8 of 19 shooting. Murray had only 15 points. But Brown and Aaron Gordon pitched in 27 and 21 points apiece to make the Nuggets’ offense whole.
The Heat got 25 points from Butler and 20 from Adebayo. Both were looking for their shots but shied away from getting all the way to the rim with Jokic planted by the basket. Others had their moments — Kevin Love made back-to-back 3s at the start of the third quarter, Duncan Robinson made 3s and floaters down the stretch, Caleb Martin had a couple of tough finishes in the paint — but it wasn’t enough to keep pace with the top seed in the West.
Now the Heat must go to Denver to try to get one win. Winning three straight against a team like the Nuggets that has so many ways to beat you is unlikely, but the Heat won’t fold because of long odds.
“This is what this year has been all about for this group,” Robinson said. “We’re definitely not going to hang our heads or quit. That’s not an option and it’s not going to happen.”
If the first four games of this series has shown anything, it’s that the Nuggets are the superior team. The two-man game of Jokic and Murray is too sublime. The role players too perfect a fit. The Nuggets have been pining for this moment, and it feels like it’s their time, led by the best player in the world who the Heat do not have an answer for.
Jokic’s post-ups, passes and precision have been the dominate factor in the NBA Finals. Adebayo has worked hard to deny him touches, but can do only so much when giving up two inches and 30 pounds. Butler, hobbled by an ankle injury and heavy minutes load, appears to be running out of “Playoff Jimmy” magic. The Heat’s cast of shooters has gone cold, making less than 40% of their 3s for the third time in the last four games.
For the Heat to pull off the improbable would require a turnaround rivaling the one that got them, the No. 8 seed to begin these playoffs, to this point in the first place. The Heat won’t quit, just as they didn’t on Friday night, but perseverance can sometimes only take a team so far.
“Now we are in a must-win situation every single game,” Butler said. “It’s not impossible. We’ve got to go out there and do it. We’ve got three to get.”