NBA Finals: Heat can't conjure magic in Game 4 as title hopes start to fade

MIAMI — The big, gold ball is coming more and more into vision for the Denver Nuggets, and like everything the Heat wanted to accomplish in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, it looks like an unobtainable mirage for Miami.

The Heat are staring at some unavoidable realities, capped off by a 108-95 loss to the Nuggets on Friday night on their home court — and being one loss away from elimination.

First, they’ve lost four straight home games, with that Game 3 East finals blowout of the Boston Celtics feeling like months ago, and overall they’ve dropped six of eight after a rousing start to this playoff run.

But beyond the numbers, an opportunity was in front of the Heat in Game 4 to tie the series and send real doubt into the minds of the favored Nuggets.

Something special was required from the Heat. Not just good or great, but special. Transcendent.

Games 4s have recently brought Steph Curry burning down the TD Garden with a hail of triples, and Giannis Antetokounmpo pushing off an ailing leg to produce arguably the greatest defensive play in the history of the sport.

In years past, Michael Jordan’s highest-scoring Finals game was a 55-point special … in Game 4. Magic Johnson’s junior-junior skyhook? Game 4.

Jimmy Butler was good, and in moments you felt like the magic was coming. But he’s done so much already this postseason, 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists almost feel like you’re asking too much of a man with a bum ankle that’s robbed him of explosiveness and base strength.

Transcendence was necessary. Good with great moments isn’t quite good enough.

The Heat could see it, and at times felt close enough to taste it but couldn’t really wrap their arms around the moment. There wasn’t real panic, and the Heat were competitive when it seemed like they were on the verge of getting run out of their own building multiple times.

But close was as close as they could get it — and they’ve probably gone as far as their talent can reasonably take them, as far as Erik Spoelstra’s masterful coaching can move them. They need more, and more isn’t on the floor or on the sideline.

Perhaps it comes in the form of Damian Lillard, who listed the Heat as a destination in the event he gets traded from Portland, and he could certainly fit right in with the pack of dogs the Heat employ.

The Heat needed someone to put real pressure on Jamal Murray following his 30-point triple-double, on both ends of the floor, a true weapon that can only be scouted for in so many ways before basketball excellence takes hold.

Gabe Vincent will certainly get paid by someone this offseason, but he’s had a couple of forgettable home games in the Finals — Friday he went 1-for-6 and was a minus-21. Max Strus again has been a non-factor in the three losses, bringing his total in those nights to a cringe-worthy 1-for-21.

Receiving unexpected sparks from Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love narrowed the gap, but it was extended when Aaron Gordon (27 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and Bruce Brown (21 points) played the games of their lives. Gordon, of course, is a former lottery pick who was overmatched as a No. 1 in Orlando but is perfectly nestled in the Nuggets’ system as a defender and opportunistic scorer.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler works against the Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray in Game 4 of the NBA Finals at the Kaseya Center in Miami on June 9, 2023. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The Heat nearly did everything right in defending Nikola Jokić and Murray, not allowing a repeat of their historic Game 3. But in those small crevices of a game plan, the fine print that can only be read with a magnifying glass, allowing Gordon to hit three triples in the first half is almost inexcusable.

Brown just happened to put the finishing touches on a career night, with 11 of his 21 in the fourth quarter when the Heat were desperate to find any strand of hope.

“Every time we felt like we got it to six or eight, they were able to push it to 12,” Spoelstra said. “That was certainly a frustrating part of the game. Brown was a big part of ... some of his random drives and plays in the middle of the paint when you’re expecting it to be Murray or somebody else.”

Spoelstra was as feisty as ever following the narrow loss, not wanting to dive into the possibilities of postmortems or the overarching emotions that come with crushing losses in the Finals and the realization that all can be done, but it still doesn’t guarantee anything aside from a good effort.

“All we are going to focus on is getting this thing back to the 305. Get this thing back to Miami. And things can shift very quickly,” Spoelstra said. “I told the guys, feel whatever you want to feel tonight. It’s fine. You probably shouldn’t sleep tonight any amount of time. I don’t think anybody will. We have an incredibly competitive group. We’ve done everything the hard way, and that’s the way it’s going to have to be done right now, again.”

Getting back to the 305 hasn’t meant anything positive in a long while, their best outing a heartbreaking Eastern Conference finals Game 6 loss to the Celtics on a Derrick White tip-in. Of course, what followed was another show of Miami resilience in Game 7, but how much resilience can be counted upon when that’s Miami’s natural setting?

At some point, you have to summon excellence. Bam Adebayo had some moments of lightning, beating Jokić down the floor for a crowd-shaking dunk, but he also had seven turnovers — one fewer than Denver’s entire roster.

And with the shooters going cold again, as the Heat shot 32% from 3, there are less and less avenues for the Heat to muster a win, let alone more than one.

“No, I won’t do it [force shots],” Butler said. “I got too much faith in my guys. Their shots will fall. They have been the reason behind us winning so many games, and I’m not letting that faith in them waver. I won’t do it. I’m going to continue to play basketball the right way, pump confidence in those guys, and we are going to always live with the result.”

In time, we’ll look at this Denver Nuggets postseason as one of the greatest runs in NBA history. The only reason we haven’t yet is because we didn’t predict it. It’s hard to see Milwaukee faring much better, let alone the maddening Boston Celtics — so putting the focus on the Heat as some lucky eighth seed sent to slaughter is misguided.

And the Heat coming up against this level of focus and determination, all hands and more were called for. And who knows if a healthy Tyler Herro would help, but a battered one isn’t much of anything but a target.

If any team is capable of making this a series, it’s these guys. They’re too stubborn to see what’s in front of them and perhaps too wise to acknowledge what they’re missing.

“Yeah, it’s going to be inspiring plays. You stack inspiring play after inspiring play,” Spoelstra said. “Then we are going to stack a bunch more of those kind of plays in Game 5. Our guys love this kind of deal with the stakes and the context of everything. We’re not even going to think about what’s after that. All we’re focused on is getting this thing back to Miami.”

They’re not thinking, but they see what they’re up against.