In Game 2 of the NBA Finals Sunday night, the Heat’s 111-108 win did several things at once.
It knotted this series up at 1-1. It shattered the illusion, for whomever it still existed, that this was going to be easy, straightforward and certain for Denver. It infused Miami with — or reminded us of the team’s already in place — unparalleled confidence.
They have an ability, as their head coach likes to say, to “do it the hard way,” and they again did just that.
And it put Miami on the same path that saw them get here in the first place.
In their first two series of this postseason, Miami, an eight-seed, were also tied at 1-1, against the Milwaukee Bucks and then the New York Knicks. In both cases doubts also remained about their ability to turn those early-series stalemates into three more wins.
They eventually beat Milwaukee in five, and New York in six.
“Our guys love to compete. They love to put themselves out there in those moments of truth,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “Fortunately, we were able to make a lot of big defensive plays down the stretch, and then we got a lot of contributions, which you’re going to need against a team like this.”
In so many ways, Miami showed, yet again, the pattern of play that has gotten them here. A refusal to let doubt creep in, which on Sunday took the form first of Max Strus. Strus was 0 for 10 in Game 1, inlcuding 0 for 9 from deep, but he started Game 2 with a dizzying display of surety by going 4 of 7 on threes for 12 points in the first quarter. It was a tone setter for the rest of his team the rest of the night.
There was Gabe Vincent, who had his own issues in Game 1, going 8 of 12 for 23 points.
And there was Jimmy Butler, who scored eight of his 21 points in the fourth quarter as Miami turned an eight-point deficit into a victory that changed the entire series.
Time and again, the Nuggets took leads, and at the time seemed like they were on a path that would put them halfway to a championship. Denver was up seven early in the second quarter. Then 15 toward the end of the frame. Then a handful of points for most of the third quarter, finishing up eight heading into the fourth quarter.
And yet Miami hung around and never quite surrendering to what many others saw as perhaps inevitable.
“I asked the team. I asked them, ‘You guys tell me why we lost?’ And they knew the answer,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “Miami came in here and outworked us, and we were by far our least disciplined game of these 16 or 17 playoff games, whatever it is now. So many breakdowns.
“They exploited every one of our breakdowns and scored,” he continued. “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.”
The Heat simply dominated the game when it mattered most, just as they have time and again throughout this postseason. The team’s will, belief and toughness has shown through again.
Throughout the night, they also repeatedly confounded Nuggets players not named Nikola Jokic. The two-time MVP had 41 points and 11 rebounds. But that was always part of the plan — let Jokic score, if you must, but stop the other would-be stars from shining.
The Heat defense did just that. Though Jamal Murray put on a show in the fourth quarter, hitting some big shots to make it close for Denver, it missed the potential game-tying shot that would have sent the game to overtime. But for the most part, Miami had made him largely ineffective for most of the contest, as his 18-point night showed.
Momentum is a powerful thing. So is belief, when it’s genuine and widespread.
Miami now has both.