NBA Finals: Stubborn Heat ‘don't give a damn’ whether they belong or not

DENVER — The Miami Heat are too stubborn to realize their talent shouldn’t have carried them this far, too stubborn to realize a knockout punch from the Denver Nuggets means they should stay on the mat, too stubborn to accept they shouldn’t have tied the NBA Finals on Sunday night.

But, in their own words, they don’t give a damn.

About what the public thinks, about the Nuggets’ home record, about what Las Vegas says should be the outcome of this series.

The steely resolve again showed in a resounding way, as they hushed a celebratory crowd licking its fingers in anticipation for a title, flying back to South Beach by doing what they do best — stealing home-court advantage and making this Finals a true series.

Jamal Murray’s potential tying 3 looked on line but didn’t hit the mark, capping off a 111-108 Game 2 win at Ball Arena. It was on the back of one of the more impressive fourth-quarter showings in recent memory, shooting 69% and hitting 5-of-9 triples to erase an 8-point deficit entering the final 12.

They’d already picked themselves up following Denver tossing out the big Joker on the table, when the Nuggets took a 15-point lead in the second quarter — most of which occurred when Nikola Jokić was taking his customary rest.

Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo to the basket against Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon during Game 2 of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena in Denver on June 4, 2023. (Mark J. Terrill - Pool/Getty Images)

We’ve seen teams fold under this pressure, the seriousness of the Nuggets throughout these playoffs — most haven’t had the ability to concentrate for 2½ hours and stay stubbornly committed to a plan for whatever reason.

The Heat have had the most close losses through the season, which should’ve been a harbinger for how the playoffs were going to unfold. And while that would’ve broken most teams — a cumulative effect over the course of years and playoff runs, they’ve absorbed the pain but released it back to the world.

If they could rebound from that soul-crushing loss to Boston in Game 6 of the conference finals, a little slip-up in Game 1 wasn’t going to bruise their confidence or belief in themselves.

The Heat don’t give a damn either way.

But they care about winning or at the very least, playing a game on their terms. They find the beauty in a cracked mirror, they dedicate themselves to perfectly playing an imperfect game and just when you think they’ve run out of talent, someone emerges out of the muck.

In the fourth it was Duncan Robinson, who executed his backdoor cuts and flares to the 3-point line with precision — confusing a Nuggets team that’s rarely been on the defensive for the last two months.

Robinson and Bam Adebayo took turns stymying the Nuggets while Jimmy Butler sat for his early rest, taking advantage of Michael Porter Jr.’s now-rare defensive lapses. Before you knew it, the Heat were charging and the Nuggets were trying to regain control of a game that was never on their terms to begin with.

“Our guys, regardless of how the head coach feels, during the fourth quarter, our guys love to compete,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They love to put themselves out there in those moments of truth. 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.”

Spoelstra shot down the notion of the Heat allowing Jokić to score while attempting to shut down the other potent offensive options, but every time Jokić has scored at least 40 (41 with 11 rebounds) in these playoffs, his team has come away with a loss.

Jokić did take 28 shots while the next closest Nugget, Murray, was at nearly half the attempts (15).

“Yeah, that’s a ridiculous — that’s the untrained eye that says something like that,” Spoelstra snapped. “This guy is an incredible player. You know, twice in two seasons he’s been the best player on this planet. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, make him a scorer.’ That’s not how they play. They have so many different actions that just get you compromised.”

But the Heat were the ones making the Nuggets compromise, even early when a sizable lead turned into a Nuggets advantage. Spoelstra inserted Kevin Love back into the lineup after a few DNPs, and it prevented Aaron Gordon from feasting early, as Love was a +18, trailing only Gabe Vincent.

And Vincent — one of those undrafted guys you hear so much about when referencing the Heat — provided shooting the Nuggets were unable to counter. Vincent and Max Strus hit 4 3-pointers each — Strus making up for all the misses in Game 1.

“But Max has also proven that he can impact winning regardless of whether the ball is going in,” Spoelstra said. “He puts in more time than he probably should. He’s a masochist, like all of us. He’s always going to put in the time. He’s ignitable. And we needed every bit of what he did tonight.”

Strus doesn’t give a damn either. Neither does Adebayo, who can frustrate and amaze in the same play, let alone the same game. Adebayo had to eat those buckets from Jokić while staying out of foul trouble, then had to provide a punch on the other end to keep Denver’s defense honest.

“I just think nobody cares on our team,” said Butler, who worked himself into a 21-point game. “We’re not worried about what anybody thinks. We’re so focused in on what we do well and who we are as a group that at the end of the day, that’s what we fall back on. Make-or-miss shots, we’re going to be who we are because we’re not worried about anybody else. That’s how it’s been all year long, and that’s not going to change.”

Butler said he’d keep spraying the ball to the Heat shooters, and they again rewarded the trust as they have in the last several games of this playoff run. Even Butler had to come with a short memory in the fourth quarter, certainly emblematic of Miami’s approach and mental toughness.

Soon as he reentered the game in the fourth quarter with eight minutes remaining, he dribbled the ball off his foot, leading to a Jokić basket.

The next possession, he unleashed a corner triple in Gordon’s eye. He can cause chaos in one minute then provide the soothing balm seconds later.

“I don’t think there’s a secret sauce to it,” Butler said. “I think we just move the ball, pass the ball to the open guy and play some simple basketball.”

If it wasn’t a secret sauce, other teams would be successful in duplicating it, in not folding at the first sign of adversity. It almost felt like the Nuggets panicked because they saw that the Heat didn’t, and the fourth quarter played out accordingly.

“So that’s what I think it is,” Butler said. “I think it’s the ‘I don't give a damn’ factor.”

They don’t, but they don’t mind seeing you in pain, though.