8:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Nuggets -2.5, Over/Under: 214.5
With two chapters in the book now completed, the scene shifts to South Beach where the Miami Heat look to press their advantage at home against the Denver Nuggets, who look to bounce back from their first defeat in eight outings, in this, Game Three of the 2023 NBA Finals from Kaseya Center. After besting their opponent rather convincingly in Game One (104-93), the Nuggets (53-29, 1st in Western Conference) failed to bring that same confidence, intensity, and attention to detail that has been a hallmark of this particular postseason run. Indeed, Denver looked much more like they did in the second half of Thursday night’s opener than they did in the first; the hosts shot a blistering 59.5% from the field in the first twenty-four minutes of Game One en route to establishing a commanding 59-42 lead, only to cool considerably post-intermission where they could manage just 40.5% shooting and were outscored 51-45. Though they shot the ball well throughout Sunday’s affair (52.0%), they struggled mightily to contain their opponent on the defensive end; (Head Coach) Mike Malone was furious is his side’s inability to slow down the Heat, who erupted in the second half on 54.3% shooting, erasing a 15-point deficit in relatively short order. So, what in the name of George Karl went wrong for the Nuggets, you ask? Well, they simply couldn’t stop Miami from finding the bottom of the bucket. It’s not often that you lose a quarter or half in which you’re shooting 54.5% from the floor, which should give you an idea just how poor the home side was on the defensive end of the hardwood, as the visitors TORCHED them for 68.8% shooting in the fourth period alone, where they kicked things off with a 15-2 run. With that said, the issue that has garnered the most attention has been (two-time MVP Center) Nikola Jokic, who despite exploding for a whopping FORTY-ONE points on 16-of-28 shooting (57.1%) and eleven rebounds, was held to a playoff-low FOUR assists with five turnovers. After dishing out six dimes in the first quarter of Game One and finishing with fourteen, the Heat shifted their approach defensively in an attempt to force the towering Serbian into becoming more of a scorer than selfless playmaker for his teammates, which appears to be a strategy that tracks; Denver was just 3-7 this season when Jokic (pictured above) was held to six or fewer assists. For all of the accolades that he has earned in these playoffs, from a single playoff record NINE triple-doubles to becoming the first Center in NBA history to post 500+ points and 100+ assists in the same postseason, what really makes this guy so damn special is his uncanny ability to basically operate as a Point Guard and facilitate the offense from multiple areas of the court. Keep in mind, the 28-year-old scored or assisted on FIFTY-EIGHT of his team’s points in the opener and thus far in the playoffs is averaging a ridiculous 54.1 (2nd most in NBA history). However, the rest of the team accounted for sixty-seven points on 48.9% shooting, including 9-of-23 from beyond the arc (39.1%). Sure, those numbers aren’t bad by any metric, but it was a still a departure from the wide-open looks that they were receiving in Game One, where the attention that Jokic had drawn created a plethora of space. (Sharpshooting Swingman) Jamal Murray, whose return to full strength from an ACL tear that cost him 1.5 seasons of action, has been such a key factor to their success during this playoff run, was sublime alongside the Serbia international last Thursday, totaling twenty-six points on 11-of-22 shooting (50.0%), six rebounds, and ten assists, becoming just the fourth player in NBA history to put up 25/5/10 in a Finals debut, but on Sunday came back down to Earth a bit with eighteen points on 7-of-15 shooting (46.7%), four boards, and ten dimes. Again, it wasn’t a disappointing performance by any means, just less impactful. The same can be said for other members of the supporting cast, such as Michael Porter Jr, whose size and shooting at Small Forward was a huge mismatch in the previous affair (14 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks) though was less so with five points and six boards over the weekend. Add it all up and you have a team that tasted defeat on their home floor for the first time since March 30th, while also losing a game in which they held a lead of ten points or more for the first time in these playoffs. With all that said, there were some positives to take away from this defeat, which Malone can use as a valuable learning experience to teach his charges. As we already stated, Denver shot the ball VERY well against Miami’s ever-changing defensive looks, particularly when they managed to speed the game up, holding a strong advantage in fast break points (18-5), aided by twenty-three points via eleven forced turnovers, while also hammering them in the paint (48-34). They also mustered quite the comeback in the final stanza, cutting a 12-point deficit to just three points following a late Jokic score with thirty-five seconds left to play, with Murray’s potential tying three-pointer failing to hit its mark. From a betting perspective, the Nuggets were more than a solid betting option during the regular season, posting a 44-37-1 record against the spread, while continuing that performance in these playoffs where they’ve covered the number in ten of their seventeen contests. Denver is 8-2 straight-up and 6-4 against the spread over their last ten games overall, though met defeat for the first time at home in this postseason, and now find themselves on the road where despite their standing have been less convincing; Malone’s group are just 4-3 both straight-up and against the spread away from Ball Arena in these playoffs, though are riding a three-game win streak in both regards. Furthermore, they are 10-2 straight-up as a favorite, while covering seven of those affairs when laying points. Also, Sunday night’s loss aside, they’ve covered ten of their last twelve meetings with the Heat, including seven of the last eight encounters.
Meanwhile, has there been a more stubbornly resilient team in recent postseason history than the Heat (44-38, 8th in Eastern Conference), who in becoming just the second Eight Seed to ever reach the NBA Finals, bounced back from a predictably flat performance in Game One to square things away as the venue shifts to their home in South Florida. After their grueling and taxing seven-game triumph over the (reigning Eastern Conference Champion) Celtics, Miami looked visibly fatigued in Game One for a variety of reasons, including their quick turnaround from one series to another (just two days) and the notorious altitude in Denver, which oftentimes can take a while to become acclimated to. Couple those notes with the fact that their opponent had enjoyed a whopping TEN days of rest prior to Thursday night’s opener and the proverbial table was set, as the visitors went on to produce a particularly dreadful offensive performance; (Head Coach) Erik Spoelstra’s troops shot just 40.6% from the field, including 13-of-39 from beyond the arc (33.3%) in Game One, all the while attempting the fewest free-throws in Finals history (2). That last figure tells it all, folks, as the East Champions were simply too tired to create much of anything offensively, settling for contested three-pointers rather than drive to the rim. This lack of aggression was noticeable, particularly from (five-time All-NBA Swingman) Jimmy Butler, who finished the night with a meager thirteen points, zero free-throw attempts, and an underwhelming eight drives to the rim. To put that into perspective, the 33-year-old completed twenty drives in last week’s Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals. Well, it was clear on Sunday night that this team had learned from their mistakes as they slowly grew into the contest, finishing with an exclamation point in the fourth quarter, where they netted a stellar 11-of-16 attempts from the field (68.8%), including 5-of-9 from downtown (55.6%), and 9-of-10 from the charity stripe (90.0%). By the end of the game, the Heat had shot 17-of-35 from three (48.6%), outscoring the hosts by eighteen points in that regard, while making it a point to get to the free-throw line where they knocked down 18-of-20 attempts (90.0%), one fewer than Denver. As for Butler, he was one of five different players to score in double-figures for the visiting side, totaling twenty-one points, four rebounds, and nine assists despite shooting an underwhelming 7-of-18 from the floor (36.8%). He was though, far more aggressive in conducting NINETEEN drives to the rim, which opened things up for his teammates. By now, we’ve all become very acquainted with Heat Culture, referring to the organization’s remarkably brilliant ability to develop undrafted players into more than serviceable contributors. All throughout this postseason run, Miami has received a wealth of performances from various members of the supporting cast, including the likes of Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, and Duncan Robinson, all of which are gems unearthed and polished by Spoelstra and his staff. In Sunday’s victory at Mile High, the quartet of Vincent, Strus, Robinson, and (former All-Star) Kevin Love combined for FIFTY-SEVEN points on 18-of-36 shooting (50.0%), including 12-of-25 from long range (48.0%). Strus bounced back with fourteen points and four triples after going scoreless in Game One, while Love’s size was a welcome addition to the starting lineup with ten points and rebounds apiece. However, the biggest stories were Vincent (pictured above alongside Strus) and Robinson, who played leading roles in their team’s decisive 36-25 fourth quarter in which they went on a 12-0 run by themselves. The former finished the night with a team-high twenty-three points on an efficient 8-of-12 shooting (66.7%) and 4-of-6 from three (66.7%), three assists and a pair of steals, while the latter scored all ten of his points in the final period of play, nailing all but one of his five shots (80.0%). There is certainly something to be said of closing, and this group is well acquainted with the concept, for through two games they are +90 in the fourth quarter, which bodes well for them as they head home for the next two games of the series. Furthermore, in erasing Denver’s 15-point lead, Miami concluded their seventh comeback of fifteen or more points in this postseason, which is the most that the Association has seen in the last twenty-five years. From a betting perspective, the Heat were below average in the regular season in amassing a 31-49-2 record against the spread, only to have completely flipped the script in these playoffs where they have covered the number in FIFTEEN of their twenty-two postseason outings (.681). Miami is both 6-4 straight-up and against the spread over their last ten games overall, and now find themselves at home where they have covered the line in seven of ten contests. As we’ve come to recognize of late, they’ve really earned their money as underdogs, which as an eighth seed is a role that they’ve played many times in these playoffs; Butler & Co are a commanding 12-4 against the spread during this postseason when receiving points from the oddsmakers, including five outright victories in their last seven contests. With that said, they’ve rarely enjoyed success in either regard when it comes to facing the Nuggets, who they have lost all but three of their last fourteen meetings against, while failing to cover the spread in ten of their past twelve encounters. On the injury front, there was an update yesterday on the status of (2021-2022 Sixth Man of the Year) Tyler Herro, who could finally make his return from a broken right hand that has sidelined him throughout the majority of this playoff run. Though Spoelstra would certainly welcome some more firepower from the supporting cast, the veteran tactician poured some cold water on any imminent return, proclaiming him out of action for tonight’s contest, and more than likely out for the rest of the Finals.