DENVER | Erik Spoelstra bristled at the suggestion the Miami Heat somehow solved Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets by allowing the superstar to score at will while taking away his passing lanes and his penchant to elevate his teammates.
“Yeah, that’s ridiculous,” Spoelstra interjected after Miami’s 111-108 win Sunday night sent the series back to Florida tied 1-1 with the home-court advantage suddenly in possession of the eighth-seeded Heat.
“That’s the untrained eye that says something like that,” the Miami coach added.
Maybe so, but the top-seeded Nuggets are 0-3 this postseason when Jokic scores 40 or more points. Their last loss in the playoffs was at Phoenix in Round 2 when he scored 53.
Jokic is averaging a triple-double in the playoffs. He had 41 points and 11 rebounds Sunday night but just four assists — a season low — as the Nuggets lost at home for the first time in 66 nights.
“This guy is an incredible player,” Spoelstra said. “You know, twice in two seasons he’s been the best player on this planet. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, make him a scorer.’ That’s not how they play. They have so many different actions that just get you compromised.
“We have to focus on what we do. We try to do things the hard way, and he requires you to do many things the hard way. He has our full respect.”
While Jokic was his dominant self save for his usual double-digit assists, his teammates disappeared after Denver built a 15-point lead in the first half and took an eight-point advantage into the fourth quarter.
Michael Porter Jr. scored five points and extended his shooting slump in the finals, where he’s made just 3 of 17 shots from long range. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had as many points — 6 — as fouls and Jamal Murray’s 18 points snapped his streak of six straight playoff games of 25 or more.
It was defensively where Denver seriously struggled in losing for the first time in 10 playoff games at Ball Arena. The Nuggets allowed 17 3-pointers, including four from Max Strus, who scored 14 points after his 0-for-10 goose egg in the opener.
“As I mentioned after Game 1, the fact that they got 16 wide-open 3s was concerning,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They didn’t make them. So, we got lucky in Game 1. Tonight, they made them.”
Jimmy Butler scored 21 after being held to 13 in Game 1. Reserve Duncan Robinson sparked Miami’s 29-10 run to start the fourth quarter with 10 quick points and the Heat went 18 of 20 from the free throw line after getting to the line just once in the opener.
“We had a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding,” Jokic said.
Along with so many missed chances.
“I told our guys if we would have won this game tonight, we would have stole one,” Malone said.
They nearly pulled off the heist, too.
Murray’s open 3-pointer hit the front of the iron, however, and Caleb Martin, replaced in the starting lineup by Kevin Love, corralled the rebound before the buzzer, handing the Nuggets their first loss in 10 home playoff games.
“It was a good look,” Murray said. “Just didn’t go down.”
Every starter not named Jokic struggled.
“I don’t think that’s the biggest question,” Malone said. “Let’s talk about effort.”
It was nonexistent, Malone argued. “That to me is really, really perplexing, disappointing.”
“To me the wheels really fell off to start that fourth quarter. 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, and we had a hard time getting stops, and then we had a hard time getting made baskets on the other end,” Malone said.
“Our defense has to be a hell of a lot better.”
Malone asked his players in the sullen locker room why they thought they lost.
“And they knew the answer,” Malone said. “Miami came in here and outworked us. … If we’re going to try to go down there and regain control of this series and get home-court advantage back, we’re going to have to outwork Miami, which we didn’t do tonight, and our discipline is going to have to be off the charts.”
Denver came in with an NBA-best 43-7 home record, counting the playoffs.
Jokic had 28 of Denver’s 51 points in the second half, forced for long stretches to shoulder the scoring load alone. And now that 40-point output appears to be a whammy.
“No, I don’t think it has anything to do with that,” Murray said ‘It’s defense and discipline.”
Both of which were lacking. So, instead of heading to South Florida halfway to the franchise’s first NBA championship, the Nuggets are a shaken team that maybe is finding so much time — 10 days — between the conference championship and the NBA Finals was too much.
And they must realize that Jokic, for all his greatness, is no solo act.
“One thing I trust about him,” Malone said. “is he’s going to make the right read time and time again.”
He just needs everyone else to do their part.
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