Game 3 will give either the Miami Heat or the Denver Nuggets the upper hand in the NBA Finals. Here’s what to watch for as the action unfolds.
The Miami Heat evened the NBA finals at one game apiece after an enthralling 111-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night. Miami becomes the first team to steal homecourt advantage away from Denver in these playoffs, as the top-seeded outfit in the Western Conference had previously been undefeated (8-0) at Ball Arena.
Game 2 served as an excellent reminder of why the Miami Heat have made it this far in the postseason. They were red-hot from 3-point range (17-of-35), were the more composed team down the stretch (they outscored Denver 36-25 in the fourth quarter in Game 2 and now have a ridiculous plus-29.9 net rating in clutch situations in these playoffs), and received winning contributions from everybody in their scrupulously selected rotation.
Can the Miami Heat supporting cast keep stepping up in the NBA Finals?
Max Strus rebounded from his ice-cold Game 1 performance with 14 points (including four 3- pointers in the opening frame) and 6 assists. Kyle Lowry had a couple of costly turnovers at the beginning of the second quarter but hit two momentum-shifting 3s to dampen the energy of the Nuggets crowd.
Duncan Robinson helped turn the game around for Miami, scoring all 10 of his points in the blink of an eye as part of a 15-2 run at the start of the fourth quarter. Gabe Vincent continued his phenomenal postseason play, pouring in a team-high 23 points on a highly efficient 8-of-12 shooting performance.
Kevin Love made sure Erik Spoelstra’s decision to insert him into the starting lineup paid off, as the veteran provided them with another big body to aid Bam Adebayo in Miami’s strategy to muddy up the paint for Denver’s offense. Matched up with Aaron Gordon, Love finished with a plus-minus differential of plus-18 in his 22 minutes on the floor, made all the more impressive by the fact that Nikola Jokic was on the floor for all of Love’s minutes. Although it’s worth noting that Denver shot 3-of-13 from 3-point range when Love was in the game so perhaps there was some shooting luck involved here.
It will be fascinating to see whether Love has as much success in his stint tonight as he had in Game 2, and how Denver goes about exploiting his defensive shortcomings in Game 3. For example, they could try to use Aaron Gordon as a screener more to try and exploit Love’s weaknesses in this area.
Are the Miami Heat stars up to the challenge?
Of course, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo were integral to Miami’s victory as well. While Butler had another tough game shooting-wise, going just 7-of-19 from the floor, he came alive with two clutch baskets in the fourth quarter and did a great job attacking the paint and then getting his teammates involved, finishing with a team-high 9 assists.
Butler was also the primary matchup on Jamaal Murray after guarding Aaron Gordon for much of Game 1, and made life difficult for the Nuggets’ point guard who finished with 10 assists himself, but didn’t have a huge impact in the scoring column until late in the game when he nearly brought Denver back from the jaws of defeat.
As for Bam, he was extremely active on both ends of the floor and while the impact he made in the scoring column was nice (21 points), he also played some really excellent defense on Nikola Jokic (contrary to what the box score might tell you), who had to work for every inch of space he got against Bam in Game 2. Watching him go toe to toe with Jokic in these Finals has been must-see TV.
Can the Nuggets get back to blowing things open with offense?
For the Nuggets, while they will certainly be disappointed to pick up their first home loss of the postseason, they can take solace in the fact that it took Miami’s most efficient offensive performance of the postseason in order to beat them. Per CleaningTheGlass, Miami scored 129.1 points per 100 possessions in Game 2, their highest offensive efficiency rating of the postseason (they are averaging 115.6 points per 100 possessions). The law of averages will tell you that this level of offensive production from Miami is simply not sustainable.
While it’s true that Denver missed some rotations (looking at you, MPJ), and gifted Miami some freebies by committing some truly atrocious fouls (looking at you, KCP), the Heat shooting the lights out from beyond the arc played a huge factor in their game two victory plain and simple.
Denver has the No. 1 ranked offense in the playoffs, scoring 121.4 points per 100 possessions. The gap between them and the No. 2 ranked offense is wider than the gap between the No. 2 ranked offense and the No. 8 ranked offense — nobody has been able to solve the questions they pose to a defense. They scored 112.1 points per 100 possessions in Game 1, and 125.6 points per 100 possessions in Game 2 despite getting virtual no-shows on the offensive end from MPJ and KCP, who are a combined 5-of-23 from downtown this series after shooting 41.4 percent and 42.3 percent during the regular season.
If Miami is going to continue to pull off upsets in this series, they are going to need to keep up with a Denver offense that hasn’t fully spread its wings yet in these Finals. The Nuggets knew that the Heat were likely going to do this from the 3-point line seeing as they ranked 28th in the NBA in rim-shooting frequency and ninth in 3-point shooting frequency during the regular season per CleaningTheGlass, however, Game 2 all but confirmed this strategy.
Miami has done an excellent job in creating open looks from the perimeter all postseason long, but what can Denver do to make some of these looks more difficult? And on the other end, can they get Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope going in order to provide them with the offensive lift they are accustomed to getting from these two players? These are two critical questions ahead of tonight’s game three.
While there is still a ton of basketball left to be played in this series, a victory in tonight’s game would be massive for both of these teams. In the history of the NBA Finals, when the series is tied 1-1, the winner of Game 3 has gone on to win the series 80 percent of the time (32 times out of 40). Miami found a winning formula in Game 2, but will they be able to replicate their performance on their home floor tonight? For Denver, how they go about improving their offensive efficiency in the Kevin Love minutes is a huge area to watch tonight. Beyond that, can they reduce the number of open looks from 3 they give up to the Heat, and can they get bounce-back performances from either (or both) of MPJ and KCP?
It will all unfold tonight at 8:30 pm EST on the biggest stage in basketball: the NBA Finals.
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