The Miami Heat has taken the hard road to this point as only the second No. 8 seed in league history to advance to the NBA Finals. To win an NBA championship, another hard road awaits.
After Friday night’s 108-95 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 of the Finals at Kaseya Center, the Heat faces a 3-1 hole in the best-of-7 championship series that only one team in NBA history (the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016) has overcome. And entering this season’s playoffs, teams that have led any best-of-7 series 3-1 have gone on to win the series 95.2 percent of the time (258-13).
“I told the guys, feel whatever you want to feel tonight. It’s fine,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after Friday’s loss. “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.”
The Heat needs to win three straight games to win its fourth NBA championship in franchise history, including two games in Denver. The Nuggets just need to win one of the next three games to clinch their first NBA championship.
But Spoelstra emphasized late Friday night after the disappointing loss that the Heat’s focus only needs to be on the next game and not on the three-game winning streak it needs to win the title.
“All we are going to focus on is getting this thing back to the 3-0-5. Get this thing back to Miami,” Spoelstra said. “And things can shift very quickly.”
To force a Game 6 in Miami on Thursday, the Heat needs to win Game 5 on Monday at Ball Arena (8:30 p.m. ABC). The Heat traveled to Denver on Saturday, with Finals media day scheduled for Sunday afternoon ahead of Monday night’s contest.
As of Saturday morning, the Heat was listed as a big 9.5-point underdog for Game 5, according to FanDuel. The Nuggets have outscored the Heat by a total of 36 points over the first four games of the Finals, with Miami’s only win of the series coming by three points in Game 2.
“It’s going to be a gnarly game in Denver that is built for the competitors that we have in our locker room,” Spoelstra said, looking ahead to Game 5.
“We get an opportunity to play a super competitive game in a great environment. That’s going to be an awesome environment. Our guys are built for that. They love that. I’m sure, everything in the next three days in between, yeah we understand what the narrative will be. But that’s the way it is with our team.”
The Heat has already played two elimination games this postseason: in the Eastern Conference’s second play-in tournament game against the Chicago Bulls in Miami on April 14 and in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics in Boston on May 29. The Heat won both of those games.
The difference this time is the Heat will need to win three straight elimination games to win this series.
“Going to Denver, if there’s any team that can get one anytime, anywhere, it’s us,” said Heat captain Udonis Haslem, who is in his 20th and final NBA season. “I believe in our guys. Back against the wall,you’re going to get our best version.”
The Heat has a player on its roster who was on the only team in league history that rallied from a 3-1 series deficit in the NBA Finals to win the championship. Heat forward Kevin Love was a member of the Cavaliers when they overcame a 3-1 hole against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Finals.
“Stay in the saddle,” Love said Friday of what he learned from that experience. “We know that anything can happen. It has been done before. You really just have to take it one possession at a time. Forget the game. It’s just one possession, one quarter, half to half. Just get it done by any means necessary and figure the rest out.”
What’s Heat star Jimmy Butler’s message to his teammates?
“No doubt. We don’t have any of that,” Butler said. “We don’t have no quit. We are going to continually fight, starting [Saturday], to get better. And then we are going into Monday and do what we said we were going to do this entire time and win. We have to. We have no other choice. Otherwise, we did all this for no reason.”
The Heat has plenty to figure out over the weekend before Game 5 on Monday.
The Heat shot just 31.7 percent from three-point range in its Games 3 and 4 losses in Miami after the Nuggets adjusted their defensive game plan to contest more outside shots by sending less help on paint attacks. Gabe Vincent and Max Strus combined to shoot 2 of 17 (11.8 percent) from deep during this rough two-game stretch.
Led by the the dynamic pick-and-roll duo of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets have posted an elite offensive rating of 119.3 points per 100 possessions through the first four games of the series. That production is equivalent to the NBA’s top team offensive rating from this regular season.
The Heat’s two best players, Bam Adebayo and Butler, have combined to average 44.1 points per game on 45.1 percent shooting from the field and the Nuggets’ two best players, Murray and Jokic, have combined to average 54 points per game on 54.1 percent shooting from the field.
“It doesn’t matter about confidence or not confidence or how we feel or what our mood is,” Spoelstra said when asked about the state of the team. “Our guys love to compete. We get another opportunity to compete and take this thing one step at a time. Get this thing back to the 3-0-5. We do that, and that’s how quickly things can change.
“Obviously, we have some things to figure out, but we have an extra day to do that. The mindset, you don’t have to question that.”
But mindset is not enough against the talented Nuggets. The Heat simply has to play better or its historic run as a No. 8 seed will come to an end on Monday.
“We’ve done some hard things all year long in this playoff run and now it’s like the hardest of the hard,” Butler said. “So that’s where we’re at. That’s our reality, so we’ve got to go out and win three straight.”