The Denver Nuggets sustained their first home loss of the NBA playoffs on Sunday night, losing 111-108 to the Miami Heat. The series is now tied 1-1 heading to Miami for the next two games.

Nikola Jokić was masterful as a scorer tonight, producing 41 points on 16-of-28 shooting. His 18 points in the third quarter helped the Nuggets maintain a 83-75 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, the Nuggets gave up an immediate 8-0 run in the first 70 seconds of the fourth with Jokić on the bench, and they were unable to accumulate enough stops in the fourth quarter to outpace Miami’s torrid shooting.

The Nuggets defense was mostly undisciplined in the fourth quarter and allowed several open shots. The Heat made them pay in a big way.

Jimmy Butler scored just 21 points on 7-of-19 from the field, but it was his nine assists compared to one turnover that helped Miami most. The Heat shot a scalding 17-of-35 from three-point range (48%) including impressive shooting from Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, and Kyle Lowry. That trio combined to score 56 points and shoot 12-of-22 from three, a big difference between Games 1 and 2.

Even with the impressive shooting, the Nuggets had an opportunity to tie the game with seconds to go. After securing a rebound with roughly 11 seconds to go, the Nuggets elected not to call a timeout and draw up a play. Instead, Jamal Murray took a leaning three-pointer going to his left that drew front iron, and the Heat escaped Denver with a win.

Here are my Nuggets takeaways from Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat:

Miami’s starting lineup change makes a difference early

Rather than stick with the 6’5″ Caleb Martin, the Heat decided to start big man Kevin Love in his place, offering more interior size to match up with Denver’s big frontcourt. Though Love wasn’t a major factor as a defender early on, he grabbed some rebounds and made some good decisions as a passer to create open shots for others. The Nuggets were on their heels early and had to play catch-up. When Love went to the bench, the Nuggets started to make things happen, but not before.

In the second half, Love continued to make important plays on both ends of the floor, hitting outside shots, collecting rebounds, and thoroughly outplaying Michael Porter Jr. in all aspects. Love was a +18 in his 22 minutes, and though he didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, he made the right plays throughout the game. A difference maker from Game 1 to Game 2.

Christian Braun and Jeff Green make their mark

While the bench wasn’t Denver’s strong suit in Game 1 against the Heat, the Nuggets reserves came to play in Game 2.

Christian Braun and Jeff Green are usually the last two Nuggets in the game during these playoffs, and the bench stints are usually short. Tonight though, they played extended minutes in the first half and made plenty of important plays. Defense often turned to offense with Braun and Green coming up with stops or steals and turning those opportunities into points. Braun made some impressive shots in the halfcourt, and Green made an important three-pointer in the second quarter to force a Heat timeout.

It’s unfortunate that the Nuggets were unable to close this one out, because the efforts from Braun and Green in the first half won’t be properly recognized. They each made plays that helped Denver amass a lead, and it’s unfortunate that the lead evaporated so quickly in the fourth quarter. Both Braun and Green had miscues then, but they still finished a +8 and a +12 in the game respectively, a game the Nuggets lost by three points.

Nikola Jokić took over in the third quarter

Even though the Nuggets reclaimed the lead in the second quarter, the Heat didn’t just give up. They fought with everything they had and tied up the game midway through the quarter. It was a slog, and the Heat were generating better shots than the Nuggets consistently. Denver’s starters weren’t playing connected basketball on either end and it showed.

Throughout it all, Jokić was putting the Nuggets on his back. He had to score more in order to keep the Heat at bay, and he did, scoring 18 points in the third quarter on the way to 41 points in the game. Jokić’s dominance in that quarter gave the Nuggets a leg up in the fourth.

Unfortunately, they squandered it all.

Nuggets defense collapses in the fourth quarter

With Jokić off the floor, the Nuggets needed to lock in defensively to buy him some time after carrying the team in the third quarter. Unfortunately, that rest lasted roughly 70 seconds with the Nuggets giving up an immediate 8-0 run. Jokić reentered at the 10:48 mark and continued scoring at a high clip, but the Nuggets simply couldn’t get stops. That 8-0 run turned into a 13-2 run, and the Heat reclaimed the lead and never relinquished it again.

The Heat scored in the fourth quarter on a variety of perimeter actions, freeing up space for Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent, and Jimmy Butler to hit shots. As a team, the Heat scored at an unbelievable rate, making every open shot the Nuggets gifted them and almost every contested shot for good measure. They kept Denver at bay in the fourth quarter despite a late shooting spree from Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon.

The Nuggets didn’t bring the requisite energy or intensity. They had an opportunity to close the game at the beginning of the fourth, and it just didn’t happen.

Nobody ever said this was going to be easy. For the first time in the playoffs, the Nuggets will go on the road tied 1-1 rather than up 2-0. That’s a big storyline, and in the NBA Finals, the road gets even more difficult.

The Nuggets did this to themselves though, allowing the Heat to get comfortable, easy looks on the perimeter over and over again. The Heat established a rhythm and shot an incredible percentage. They’ve done it before, and they will do it again if the Nuggets don’t play with the proper effort and discipline next time around.

Jokić will bring it. Murray will bring it. The Nuggets need the rest of their rotation to join the party, particularly Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Both shooters had off nights once again, and their inability to impact the game defensively also made things difficult. Can Denver get more from their shooters? Or will it be entirely on the shoulders of Jokić and Murray in South Beach?

Time will tell.

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