NBA Finals: Miami heats up from 3 to even series with Nuggets at 1-1

Kevin Love watched Game 6 and Game 7 against the Boston Celtics from the Miami Heat’s sideline, dressed in home white and road black. He watched Game 1 of the NBA Finals against Denver without logging a single minute, either. The Heat dusted their 34-year-old stretch forward off the bench and into the starting lineup for Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night, helping Miami build a 21-10 lead in the opening quarter.

Love was not the answer to slow Nikola Jokić, who’d finish with a superb 41 points and 11 rebounds. Love was not Miami’s leading scorer. But Miami’s added size helped combat Denver’s swirling offense. Love, who had 6 points and 10 rebounds, helped spread the floor even further for the Heat’s own pass-happy scoring attack, which combined to connect on 17-of-35 3-pointers in Miami’s 111-108 victory over the Nuggets, tying this championship series at 1-1.

DENVER, COLORADO - JUNE 04: Gabe Vincent #2 of the Miami Heat shoots a three point basket over Christian Braun #0 of the Denver Nuggets during the fourth quarter in Game Two of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena on June 04, 2023 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Max Strus drilled his first three triples in the early going after missing all 10 of his attempts from the field in Game 1. Gabe Vincent, the Heat’s standout point guard, connected on 4-of-6 from beyond the arc en route to team-high 23 points. Duncan Robinson scored 8 points in the first minute of the fourth quarter to help Miami reverse the first-half story of bench units clawing away at a lead and flipping the game’s script. Miami missed just one shot in the first 7 minutes of the final frame, storming on a 12-4 run capped by Bam Adebayo’s and-1 layup, which matched the Heat’s largest lead from the first quarter, a 104-93 advantage.

Both teams overcame double-digit deficits to wrangle horns after intermission, when the pace slowed, like a car’s tires trudging through mud, where this Miami team has thrived all postseason long. There was a palpable increase of physicality throughout the Heat defense, most notably with Adebayo muscling against Jokić’s bruising bulldozes through the paint. Miami risked getting picked apart by Jokić’s passing as they did in Game 1, when the two-time MVP peppered 14 assists. This affair, this second half, the Heat sent second defender after second defender at Jokić at the elbows and on the blocks. Denver’s supporting cast of shooters, when the ball did swing their direction, couldn’t capitalize. A first-half highlight, a tic-tac-toe sequence with Murray slipping a pass to Jokić, who fired a one-hander to Aaron Gordon on the baseline for an easy layup, was an afterthought against the Heat’s swarming second-half defense.

Jokić still powered his way to points, but there was little rhythm to a Nuggets scoring effort that has felt so balanced and effortless throughout much of this postseason. Jamal Murray spearheaded a second-quarter spurt from Denver while Jokić rested and hit a flurry of 3-pointers in crunch time, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope posted a quiet 6 points on just four attempts for the game. Michael Porter Jr., the 2018 lottery pick who has overcome issues with shot selection and defensive attentiveness, step-backed his way into several questionable looks and got lost on a handful of Vincent’s wide-open looks from deep, losing his assignment in the throws of Miami’s actions.

Credit to Adebayo, who shot 8-of-14, for a brilliant two-way performance, finishing with 21 points and 9 rebounds while taking the brunt of Jokić’s powerful shoulders in the restricted area. Adebayo’s efficiency as a scorer has waned during Miami’s march to the Finals, but the contests in which he’s driving downhill with a bucket on his mind always seem to come easier for the Heat’s overall quest at a title. Jimmy Butler added 7 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, knocking down a corner triple and two baskets off the dribble in the midrange.

The series shifts back to Miami for Game 3 on Wednesday. It seems likely Love will remain in the Heat’s opening lineup, a spot in which he replaced forward Caleb Martin, who broke out during the Eastern Conference finals. Martin missed practice over the weekend and was questionable for this game due to illness, but he played 21 minutes, shooting 1-of-3 for 3 points. A return to home court, where supporting shooters tend to find familiar bounces off the rim, and a few days for a key contributor such as Martin to heal further — plus the potential return of scoring guard Tyler Herro — mean this series is far, far from over.