NBA Finals: With Game 2 collapse, the Nuggets' good vibes vanish into thin air

DENVER — Aaron Gordon sat at his locker, intermittently shaking his head. The subject of his stare shifted — his phone, a stat sheet, the ground at his feet — as if he was searching for something. Some answers, maybe, for what the hell had just happened out there.

Denver had led Game 2 of the 2023 NBA Finals on Sunday night by 15 points midway through the second quarter and by 8 with less than a minute left in the third. But after a fourth quarter in which the Nuggets got their doors blown off — a 36-25 finish, marked by ghastly defensive lapses, repeated unforced errors and a widespread lack of composure, punctuated with a would-be tying step-back 3-pointer by Jamal Murray that caromed off the front of the rim in the closing second of a 111-108 loss — the suit of armor that the West’s No. 1 seed had built around themselves through 13 postseason wins lay disassembled at their feet.

Their lead over the Miami Heat in these Finals? Gone. Their perfect home record in this postseason? Gone. Home-court advantage in this seven-game series? Gone. Their standing as the bigger, badder, more physical team in this matchup? The notion that their overwhelming offense on its own might be enough to hoist the Larry O’B? Gone. (Denver scored 125.6 points per 100 possessions in Game 2, according to Cleaning the Glass — above even its playoff-best average. But Miami, which had struggled mightily to put the ball in the basket in Game 1, scored a scorching 129.1 points per 100 — its highest offensive rating of this postseason.)

And all of the good vibes engendered by their dominant-through-three-quarters play in Game 1? For the moment, at least: gone.

DENVER, CO - JUNE 04: Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets attempts a shot against Bam Adebayo (13) of the Miami Heat and Kyle Lowry (7) of the Miami Heat in the fourth quarter during Game 2 of the NBA Finals at Ball Arena June 04, 2023. (Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Nikola Jokić (15) of the Denver Nuggets attempts a shot against Bam Adebayo (13) and Kyle Lowry (7) of the Miami Heat in the fourth quarter during Game 2 of the NBA Finals at Ball Arena on Sunday. (Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

What was left, as the fans filed out of Ball Arena, was the search for answers. If Gordon found anything, we’ll have to wait to hear it: Shortly after he showered and got dressed, word came down that he wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be addressing the media as scheduled. (It’s perhaps worth noting that Heat forward Caleb Martin missed Saturday’s media availability with an illness, was cleared for Game 2 despite reportedly dealing with migraines and cold chills, and logged 21 minutes off the bench.)

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Porter Jr. made early exits, too. It’s not clear if they were also feeling a bit under the weather after combining for 11 points on 3-for-12 shooting, with the veteran Caldwell-Pope fouling out in the final minute and Porter Jr. sitting for the bulk of the fourth quarter.

Nikola Jokić did take the podium after the game, dutifully answering questions about whether he felt Miami was playing him to score rather than pass, Denver’s late-game offensive stagnation and the challenges of dealing with Bam Adebayo in the pick-and-roll. Asked about the mood and spirit among the players in the Nuggets’ locker room after the loss, though, the two-time MVP’s own mood shifted.

“I don’t ...,” he started. Then he paused and looked off the podium.

“Can I not answer this question?” he asked a Nuggets media relations staffer, who nodded.

“Next question,” Jokić said.

Sometimes, when you don’t say anything, you say a lot.

Michael Malone said a lot Saturday, when he told reporters that despite coming away with an 11-point win in Game 1, he didn’t think his team had played very well. He probably didn’t enjoy saying, “I told you so” on Sunday. But after watching a starting lineup that’s been one of the very best in the NBA since October — outscoring opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions during the regular season and by 10.3 points per 100 in the postseason entering Game 2 — author lackadaisical starts to both the first and third quarters, he felt compelled to do it anyway.

“Let's talk about effort,” Malone said. “This is the NBA Finals, and we are talking about effort. That's a huge concern of mine. You guys probably thought I was just making up some storyline after Game 1 when I said we didn't play well. We didn't play well. … We had guys out there that were just, whether feeling sorry for themselves for not making shots or thinking they can just turn it on or off — this is not the preseason. This is not the regular season. This is the NBA Finals. That, to me, is really, really perplexing. Disappointing.”

The coach wasn’t the only one left at a loss.

“​​It’s the f***ing Finals, man,” said veteran forward Jeff Green, who chipped in 9 points in 16 minutes off the bench. “Our energy has to be better. We can’t come out like we did, and we have to be better.”

The Nuggets’ three-man reserve corps of Green, Bruce Brown and Christian Braun brought the energy the first group lacked, getting into Miami’s ball-handlers, forcing turnovers, sprinting the floor in transition, attacking the rim and stroking 3-pointers. That group spearheaded a 31-9 run over nine minutes of game time spanning the end of the first and start of the second quarters, putting the game back on Denver’s terms and building a 50-35 lead with five minutes to go in the opening half.

As the starters came back in, though, the focus seemed to dissipate. A 12-2 Miami run fueled by Denver miscues — overly aggressive help and closeouts that opened up 3-point looks, turnovers that led to fast-break buckets, bailout fouls on 3-point shooters (something that happened multiple times in Game 2) and a lack of physicality in pick-and-roll coverage — helped the Heat get back within two possessions heading into intermission. When Denver came out of halftime giving up 11 points on four possessions in the first minute and a half of the third, Malone called timeout to bemoan the steady diet of blown assignments and half-hearted closeouts.

“There was miscommunication, game-plan breakdowns, personnel breakdowns,” Malone said of Miami shooting 17-for-35 (48.6%) from 3-point range in Game 2. “... As I mentioned after Game 1, the fact that they got 16 wide-open 3s was concerning. They didn't make them. So, we got lucky in Game 1. Tonight, they made them. It was definitely a breakdown in communication. It was definitely a breakdown in our game plan. And, like I said, we just were not nearly as disciplined as you need to be in the NBA Finals.”

Even despite that inconsistent discipline, though, the Nuggets carried a lead into the fourth quarter, thanks largely to the brilliance of Jokić. He scored 18 points in the third alone and had 31 on 12-for-23 shooting in 31 minutes before the final frame. The sloppiness and inattention to detail reared their ugly head as soon as it started, though, as Duncan Robinson — whom Denver had smothered in the first half, keeping the sharpshooter without a shot attempt in five ineffectual first-half minutes — finally found some oxygen and got warmed up in a hurry.

“To me, the wheels really fell off to start that fourth quarter,” Malone said. “They were getting whatever they wanted — 3s, layups — and that allowed them once again to sit back in their zone offense, slow the game down. We had a hard time getting stops, and then we had a hard time getting made baskets on the other end. Our defense has to be a hell of a lot better. That's two fourth quarters, Game 1 and Game 2, where our fourth-quarter defense has been nonexistent.”

As the wheels started to wobble early in the fourth, Brown said, the team’s mentality was simple: “Stay together and try to get a stop. When we get a stop, we know we could score on the other end, so we're trying to stay together and get one.” When they couldn’t do that — Miami shot 6-for-7 on 2-pointers, 5-for-9 on 3-pointers, and 9-for-10 on free throws in the fourth, with beautiful ball and body movement leading to 9 assists on 11 makes — it started to feel like playing in quicksand.

“It's defeating when you're giving up mistake after mistake, and it's not them beating you, you're giving them open dunks or open shots,” said Murray, who finished with 18 points and 10 assists, including a pair of 3-pointers late as Denver attempted to mount a comeback. “That's tough to come back from. … We can't just have spurts of ‘second-quarter good,’ ‘end-of-the-third good.’ We can't have spurts of good play. We've got to play all the way through — through ups and downs, stay together and play with intensity and energy. And I don't think we had that.”

And against a poised, sharp, relentless Heat team that never lacks for intensity or energy, and that prides itself on taking advantage of every mistake, such a dramatic late-game lapse can prove fatal.

“I thought for three quarters tonight, actually, the defense was pretty good,” Malone said. “I believe going into the fourth quarter, they were shooting 43%. But in the fourth quarter, you give up 36 points on 69% from the field. That's not going to cut it. That's not going to cut it.”

Back in the postgame locker room, while Gordon kept searching, Brown donned his cowboy hat and offered a measure of confidence, albeit delivered with some cold-cup-of-coffee self-reflection.

“We’ll be fine,” said Brown, who finished with 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and 3 turnovers in 27 minutes off the bench. “I think we needed this to wake us up a little bit.”

When asked why he thought they needed such a wake-up call, Brown paused for a moment.

“I mean, I’ve just thought the last few days, our focus wasn't where it needed to be,” Brown said. “But it will be next game.”

It had better be. Anything less, and the dreams of the first title in franchise history dancing over so many heads in Denver over the past few days could start to give way to nightmares about golden opportunities slipping through fingers.