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Bittersweet taste lingers as Heat return to scene of NBA Finals loss to face Nuggets

DENVER – It is a return that is both heartening and humbling for the Miami Heat.

Heartening because being back at Ball Arena for Thursday night’s nationally televised game against the Denver Nuggets is a reminder of the determined push from No. 8 seed to last season’s NBA Finals.

Humbling because the lasting memory of the last visit to the building was falling in Game 5 of the championship series, after nearly forcing the series back to Miami merely left to watch the Nuggets celebrate in champagne-soaked euphoria in the bowels of the building.

With those emotions in tow, the matchup resumes for the first time since that on June 12 evening.

“The feeling for me when I walk back in there would be numb,” center Bam Adebayo said, as the Heat conclude their four-game trip, “just because we went there and lost. That wasn’t the point of going to the Finals.

“The point of the Finals was to get a win.”

But Adebayo also downplayed the moment creating additional motivation to get back to that championship-series level, to potentially create a different outcome.

“No, I feel like that started from the beginning of the year,” he said. “I feel like that motivation was from the time we lost that game, through the whole summer, to preseason, to All-Star break, to this point.”

For forward Caleb Martin, the series against the Nuggets was somewhat of a step back after his national-scene breakout against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. That leaves him with a variety of emotions entering Thursday night.

“Obviously, it reminds you of how close you came,” Martin said. “But we ended up a little bit short.

“Yeah, it brings back memories of just the run that we had to get to that point, too, so a little bit of both.”

While much of the core from that championship series remains for Denver, with the exception of forward Bruce Brown, it is not quite the same with the Heat. Gone from the core of Heat’s Finals roster are Kyle Lowry, Max Strus and Gabe Vincent, as well as 2022-23 bit players Udonis Haslem, Cody Zeller, Omer Yurtseven and Victor Oladipo. In their places are the likes of Terry Rozier, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Josh Richardson and Delon Wright.

“It shows you NBA life changes quickly,” Martin said.” Yeah, it does matter kind of what you do or what kind of run you make, but a lot of that stuff still is subject to change. Regardless of what team we had or who we don’t have, those memories will always stick, regardless.”

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Martin said there is nothing wrong with carrying the memories, but that it also can be about more than living in the past.

“It depends what you’re doing with it,” he said, with the Heat coming off Wednesday night’s 106-96 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, winners of nine of their last 11. “Us, as a team, we can’t live in the past. But those are great memories that can remind you what you’re capable of doing.

“I think all the time of how the regular season went before that run. I think sometimes when we’ve kind of struggled throughout this regular season, that’s a good thing to think about the past. So it just depends on what you’re using it for.”

As with Martin, the run to the Finals and the opportunity for the spotlight also was a breakout for teammate Haywood Highsmith.

Now, he’s back.

“It’s a feeling of getting there, but not reaching the full goal.” Highsmith said of the return to Denver. “We got there, we just didn’t fulfill the main goal. It was a good run, but we also knew we had the talent. We weren’t happy for second place, at all.

“But it’s also a whole different season.”

Still, same building, same altitude.

But Thursday, different stakes, one of 82 in the regular-season grind.

So a flood of memories of having had the opportunity to live in that championship-series atmosphere? Or the emotions of coming up short?

“I don’t know,” guard Duncan Robinson said. “Obviously there’s a mix of emotions about that run last year. It was special in a lot of ways. But when you fall short of the ultimate goal, that sits with you probably more than anything else.”

What sits with forward Jimmy Butler is that making the NBA Finals sit with the Heat, the Nuggets and every other team in contention this season.

“They’re a really good team, at home,” Butler said of the Nuggets. “Yes, we realize what happened to us last year in the Finals against them. But got to let that go, because we’re trying to make it there again, as are they.”