A ‘frustrating’ late-game stretch, other Heat takeaways from Game 4 loss to Nuggets in Finals

D.A. Varela/dvarela@miamiherald.com

Five takeaways from the Miami Heat’s 108-95 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Friday night at Kaseya Center in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. The Western Conference’s top-seeded Nuggets are now in full control of the Finals with a 3-1 lead over the Eastern Conference’s eighth-seeded Heat in the best-of-7 championship series:

The Heat could not take advantage of a golden opportunity in the fourth quarter and now it’s down 3-1 in the Finals.

Despite entering the fourth quarter trailing by 13 points, the Heat had an opportunity to complete its eighth double-digit comeback win of this year’s playoffs.

With the Heat trailing by 10 points, Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic went to the bench with 9:24 to play after picking up his fifth foul.

This was the Heat’s chance to cut into the deficit, but the Nuggets held strong.

Bam Adebayo made two free throws and Jimmy Butler completed a three-point play on an and-one layup to spark a quick 5-0 run immediately after Jokic exited the game. That pulled the Heat within five points with 8:42 remaining.

But that’s the closest the Heat would get.

The Heat missed four of its next six shots and committed two turnovers over the next 4:33, allowing the Nuggets to push their lead back up to nine when Jokic re-entered the game with 4:09 to play.

“It felt like we had opportunities offensively to score,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Some strange things happened on some of these possessions, or just misses in the paint or some untimely miscues that led to turnovers. It’s not as if they are scoring 130 on us. Just the context of when they would score or a breakdown that just kind of kept things at bay.”

Only outscoring the Nuggets by one point during that stretch with Jokic on the bench proved costly.

“Every time we felt like we got it to six or eight, they were able to push it to 12,” Spoelstra said.

Once Jokic returned to the game, the Nuggets went on a run to extend their lead to 17 points with 1:21 to play to clinch the win.

But it wasn’t Jokic doing the scoring. Jokic finished Game 4 with 23 points on 8-of-19 shooting from the field and 3-of-7 shooting from three-point range, 12 rebounds and four assists in 37 minutes, but actually didn’t score in the fourth quarter.

It was reserve guard Bruce Brown who delivered in the clutch to help the Nuggets hold on for the victory. Brown scored 11 of his 21 points over the final 5:07 of Game 4.

Meanwhile, the Heat shot just 7 of 19 (36.8 percent) from the field and 1 of 5 (20 percent) from three-point range while committing four turnovers in the fourth quarter.

Adebayo and Butler were the only two players on the Heat’s roster who reached the 20-point mark in the loss.

Adebayo closed with 20 points on 8-of-19 shooting from the field and 11 rebounds while committing seven turnovers. Butler finished with 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting from the field, seven rebounds and seven assists.

The Heat actually found a way to limit Nuggets guard Jamal Murray to 15 points on 17 shots in Game 4 after his 34-point triple-double in Game 3. But Murray still made a positive impact with a game-high 12 assists to zero turnovers.

Spoelstra labeled this late-game stretch as “a frustrating part of the game.” It’s definitely a stretch the Heat will look back at with regret if the Nuggets go on to complete the job and win the championship.

“A lot of people are pissed off,” Adebayo said when asked about the mood in the Heat’s locker room after the Game 4 loss. “But biggest thing is, first to four. That’s the biggest thing, first to four. We take it one game at a time and we figure this thing out.”

The Nuggets were the better three-point shooting team in Game 4 and that was a big problem.

Three-point shooting has been at the center of the Heat’s winning formula this postseason. The Heat entered Game 4 shooting an NBA-best 38.8 percent from three-point range during this year’s playoffs.

But the Heat shot just 8 of 25 (32 percent) from beyond the arc in Friday’s loss. Miami started the game just 4 of 14 (28.6 percent) on threes.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets turned in their most efficient three-point shooting performance of the Finals in Game 4. After shooting just 32.9 percent from three-point range in the first three games of the series, Denver shot 14 of 28 (50 percent) on threes in Friday’s win.

The Nuggets closed Game 4 with a 42-24 edge from three-point range. The Heat fell to 3-4 when being outscored from beyond the arc during this year’s playoffs.

Three-point shooting struggles have doomed the Heat since tying the series 1-1. After shooting 40.5 percent from three-point range in the first two games of the series, the Heat shot 31.7 percent from deep in its Games 3 and 4 losses in Miami.

Heat sharpshooter Duncan Robinson said the Nuggets are “helping a little bit less on drives” to contest more threes in Games 3 and 4.

Kevin Love made a team-high three three-pointers for the Heat on five attempts on Friday. The rest of the Heat’s roster shot a combined 5 of 20 (25 percent) on threes in Game 4.

Gabe Vincent and Max Strus especially struggled. Vincent (0 of 4) and Strus (0 of 3) combined to shoot 0 of 7 from three-point range.

On the other side, Aaron Gordon, Jokic and Brown each hit three threes for the Nuggets. Gordon finished with a game-high 27 points on 11-of-15 shooting from the field.

Even after Wednesday’s ugly Game 3 loss in Miami, the Heat stuck with essentially the same rotation for Game 4.

There were no changes to the starting lineup. The Heat again opened with the five-man unit of Vincent, Strus, Butler, Love and Adebayo on Friday.

It marked the third straight game that the Heat has used this starting lineup and the 15th time the Heat has used this starting lineup during this year’s playoffs.

The Vincent-Strus-Butler-Love-Adebayo combination was outscored by nine points in 12 minutes together in Game 4 and has been outscored by 19 points in 28 minutes together in the last two games.

The Heat’s bench rotation also again included Caleb Martin, Kyle Lowry, Robinson and Cody Zeller.

Lowry scored a team-high 13 points off the bench for the Heat, but all of his points came in the first half.

Haywood Highsmith also was used off the bench in Game 4 but played only the final 3.4 seconds of the first half, as he again found himself out of the rotation. He has played just nine minutes in the last three games after scoring 18 points in 23 minutes off the bench in Game 1 of the Finals.

Time is running out for Heat guard Tyler Herro to make his return.

There’s only a maximum of three games left in the season if the series goes a full seven games. But the Heat has yet to definitively rule our Herro for the series, instead labeling him as “day-to-day.”

“He just started this process while we were in Denver,” Spoelstra said when asked about Herro hours before the start of Game 4. “So it’s one thing to be able to go through all of this. It’s another thing to be cleared to play an NBA Finals game. Taking it one step at a time, and we are all really encouraged by the progress.”

Herro has not played since breaking his right hand in the opening game of the team’s playoff run.

While Herro has been cleared to begin full-contact basketball work, he has still not been cleared to return game action.

Herro underwent surgery on his right hand, his shooting hand, on April 21. At that time, the Heat announced Herro would miss a minimum of six weeks. Friday marked seven weeks since the surgery.

The Heat now faces a Finals hole that only one team has overcome in NBA history.

By taking a 3-1 series lead, the Nuggets earned three close-out opportunities to win the championship. The first one will come in Game 5 on Monday in Denver (8:30 p.m., ABC).

Only one team in league history has rallied from a 3-1 series deficit in the NBA Finals to win the championship in 36 such scenarios. The Cleveland Cavaliers did it, overcoming a 3-1 hole against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals to win the title.

Entering this season’s playoffs, teams that have led any best-of-seven series 3-1 have gone on to win the series 95.2 percent of the time (258-13).

That’s the uphill climb the Heat now faces.

“I told the guys, feel whatever you want to feel tonight. It’s fine,” Spoelstra said. “You probably shouldn’t sleep tonight any amount of time. I don’t think anybody will. We have an incredibly competitive group. We’ve done everything the hard way, and that’s the way it’s going to have to be done right now, again.”

Pulling off this improbable comeback would make the Heat’s playoff run even more historic than it already is. The Heat, which is only the second No. 8 seed to advance to the NBA Finals in league history, is looking to become the first No. 8 seed to ever win the NBA championship.

“Now we are in a must-win situation every single game, which we’re capable of,” Butler said. “Some correctable things we’ve got to do, but it’s not impossible. We’ve got to go out there and do it. We’ve got three to get.”