We’re through two games of the NBA Finals and it’s a dead heat (no pun intended).
With the series tied 1-1 heading into Wednesday’s Game 3 (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the Miami Heat hold home-court advantage thanks to a 111-108 win in Denver and have a chance to take the lead on their own turf.
One of the biggest remaining questions for the Heat is the imminent return of Tyler Herro and how he could factor back into the lineup following a hand injury suffered during the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Nikola Jokic continues to put up big numbers for the Nuggets with 41 points and 11 rebounds in Game 2, but those gaudy stats aren’t always enough. In the four postseason losses for the Nuggets, Jokic has averaged 41.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Another fun fact: When the NBA Finals are tied 1-1, the team that wins Game 3 goes on to win the title 80% of the time (32-8 series record), according to ESPN Stats & Information. That trend hasn’t held up recently, though, as Game 3 winners have just a 4-4 series record since the 2010 Finals.
Which way will this series lean in Game 3? Our insiders discuss the biggest questions, trends and storylines as the NBA Finals turn to Miami.
1. The Heat winning the championship would be ___.
Ramona Shelburne: One of the great underdog stories in NBA history. Yes, they were the No. 1 seed last year and went to the Finals just three years ago, but this year they were basically done with three minutes left in the play-in game against the Chicago Bulls. If the Heat win, that would mean they’d knocked off the top seeds in both conferences and three of the top four MVP candidates (Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum).
Ohm Youngmisuk: Erik Spoelstra’s greatest coaching job in a career that already is one of the greatest of all time. If he wins this championship, with this squad that got torched by the Atlanta Hawks in the first play-in game, with a roster that pretty much has one bona fide star in Jimmy Butler and a big man who can become a star in Bam Adebayo, with a supporting cast of scrappy role players, Spo deserves to be mentioned among not just the best coaches of all time but the legendary ones.
Tim MacMahon: The most surprising title run in NBA history. I don’t even think Butler, as confident as he is, can claim that he saw this coming. This is a team that lost the first play-in game at home by double digits and trailed in the win-or-go-home game with just three minutes remaining. With all due respect to the Heat, it’s stunning that they’ve eliminated the two teams with the best records and are 1-1 with the West’s No. 1 seed.
Nick Friedell: The greatest turnaround — in the shortest amount of time — in recent NBA history. The Heat got dominated by the Hawks in the first play-in game. They almost lost to the Bulls in the second. They have played without the injured Herro and Victor Oladipo for the majority of the postseason — but they just keep finding ways to win. At first, it was Butler carrying the group, but now player after player continues to step up and play at a higher level. I’ve never seen a team do what the Heat are doing in such a short window.
Marc Spears: Worthy of a Disney movie. Who would play Butler? Who would play Pat Riley? The story from the play-in to an NBA championship would be absolutely incredible. Nothing like this has ever happened in the 76 years of the NBA. And the unheralded yet experienced Heat have just the group of bandits to get it done over this young and heralded Nuggets squad.
2. True or False: Michael Malone should have called timeout before the last play in Game 2.
Youngmisuk: False. False. False. I usually err on the side of taking a timeout and setting up a play. But in this case, I have zero problem with Malone not calling timeout. As Malone explained, had he called timeout, that would have only given Spo a chance to draw up and set up his defense, likely making it that much tougher for Jamal Murray to get a 3-point shot off. Despite having Butler on him, Murray had a good look, the shot was on line and he has hit that shot before.
Spears: False. It kept Miami on its toes. It just didn’t work. Murray unscripted is a great choice to me. It just didn’t fall.
Friedell: False. He trusts his players. Murray got a good look — why not let it fly there? The Nuggets had the momentum and they believe in Murray. There’s no issue at all.
Shelburne: False. I think Murray got a good shot and he’s the guy you want taking it, anyway. Not sure a timeout gets Murray or anyone else a better look. It just allows Miami to set its defense.
MacMahon: False. How can you complain about one of the NBA’s elite clutch scorers getting a decent look that would have sent the game to overtime? Murray got a pretty good shot that just didn’t go in.
3. Which team wins Game 3 and why?
MacMahon: I picked the Nuggets in six and am sticking with it, so I’ll go with Denver to win on the road and reclaim home-court advantage. I don’t think the Heat have the offensive firepower to outscore the Nuggets, but Miami keeps coming up with 3-point shooting performances that drastically exceed the expected results considering shot quality.
Spears: The Heat made a great countermove in Game 2 and I expect Denver to do the same in Game 3. I also expect Denver to finally learn to put its foot on the gas throughout the game. Sure, Malone is preaching this hard to his team. Miami plays one way: all out. Denver seems to play inspired at times and goes through the motions at others. With the Nuggets on the road with two Finals games under their belt, they will finally wake up and bring the needed energy.
Friedell: The Nuggets have Jokic — and you’ve got to believe they will bounce back and play with more effort after Malone called them out once more after Game 2. The Heat are so damn tough, but Jokic and Murray should be able to get things back on track. If Michael Porter Jr. plays better and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stops committing bad fouls, the Nuggets are going to be in good shape.
Shelburne: I think the Nuggets respond and win this next game. They’re not a great road team, but they just got hit in the mouth in Game 2 and called out for a lack of effort and discipline by their coach. I think they’ll find a better response after a few days to regroup.
Youngmisuk: I like the Nuggets’ chances in Game 3. I think Game 2 serves as a wake-up call for them. Besides Malone calling out their effort and focus in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets had been cruising. This was their first loss in nearly a month since dropping Game 4 at Phoenix in the second round. This one stung, and Malone made sure his team knew the fourth-quarter defensive lapses and lack of effort were unacceptable. The Nuggets have been very good this postseason at bouncing back from such tough losses. Miami has to slow the game and make it ugly in order to keep it close.
4. Tyler Herro playing in Game 3 would be ____.
Shelburne: An emotional lift. Obviously, the Heat have been winning without him on this playoff run, so the discussion will be about whether he disrupts anything — particularly for guys such as Duncan Robinson, who has really benefited from consistent minutes. But I really think the Heat could use another offensive threat against a team as potent as Denver. Butler has been good, not great, thus far.
Youngmisuk: A bonus for the Heat. I think Miami’s Game 2 win gives the Heat more cushion to bring Herro back. If Miami wants to wait until Herro is fully ready, the Heat can wait another game now that the series is tied 1-1 going into Miami. Getting Herro back, though, would be a big boost to the offense. The risk, of course, is reinjury.
Friedell: A nice offensive player to have off the bench. Whatever Herro can give the group would be a plus, especially given his ability to stretch the floor, but don’t expect him to play heavy minutes. Spoelstra knows the young guard hasn’t played in seven weeks, and he understands that he shouldn’t have heavy expectations on Herro when he returns. If he’s not hitting shots early, the Heat know they have guys who will do the job.
MacMahon: Interesting. I’m not sure if it would help or hurt the Heat. There is some risk involved in disrupting the rotation after such an awesome run, whether Herro starts or comes off the bench. He’d be a defender whom Denver could target, but Herro’s ability to score and create could certainly be a boost for Miami.
Spears: Herro told ESPN’s Ros Gold-Unwude that he is still experiencing soreness when he shoots. But this is the NBA Finals. Everyone is dealing with something. Even if Herro can give the Heat 10-15 minutes, his shooting is a major lift. I would expect him to come off the bench. Spoelstra would have some tough decisions to make with his guards, but this is a good problem to have.
5. Which player aside from Jokic is having the biggest impact on this series?
Spears: Adebayo. He has been sensational so far, averaging 23.5 points, 11 rebounds and 4.5 assists. I’m sure he’s inspired by all this Joker talk. The Finals are a moment for Bam to remind the NBA what he is capable of.
Shelburne: Murray. One of the key adjustments Miami made Sunday was putting Butler on Murray because of how effective he’d been in Game 1. That’s saying something about the level of respect the Heat have for him.
MacMahon: Adebayo. Just ask Spoelstra: “We just can’t say enough of how difficult his responsibilities are in this series. To take arguably the toughest cover in the league for all the myriad of reasons that I don’t need to get into, and then he has to shoulder a big offensive role for us, as well.”
Youngmisuk: Murray. Everything he does will impact whether the Nuggets win or lose. As shown in Game 2, Jokic can have 41 points, but the Nuggets still lose. Jokic can’t do it alone. The Nuggets are 0-3 this postseason when Jokic scores 40 or more. Murray has to dominate the Heat for longer than spurts in order for Denver to win a title. And even in Miami’s Game 2 win, the Heat needed Murray to miss a good look at a 3 that would have sent the game to overtime. If Murray controls the game with his scoring and playmaking like he did in Game 1, Miami will be in trouble again.
Friedell: Adebayo. He was an offensive force in Game 1 and continues to be the anchor for a Heat team that keeps finding ways to win. If you believe the Heat can win this series, then you have to believe Adebayo can maintain the level of play he has displayed over the first two games.
NBA Finals roundtable – Our insiders dissect the biggest questions ahead of Game 3