It’s utterly exhausting to play against the Miami Heat, much less to play against them over and over for a full playoff series. They wear opponents down physically, with one bump and hold after another, but even more so psychologically; it’s hard for an opposing team to mount a convincing run when they know that the Heat will keep coming and coming—and that when they do, there’s no telling if the pivotal, soul-crushing plays will come from a superstar like Jimmy Butler or oft-discounted role players like Gabe Vincent or Duncan Robinson. It’s always a shell game with Miami. When any Heat player can turn an entire quarter with a run of stops or scores, every member of the rotation has to be treated like a game-changer.
Which is why it’s notable that the Heat, after grinding out upsets all throughout the playoffs, now look out of sorts and overwhelmed in much the same way their opponents have. In Game 3 of the NBA Finals, they couldn’t contain Nikola Jokic or Jamal Murray, but honestly, who can? It’s hard to fault even a supremely capable and adaptive team defense for failing to solve the most effective two-man game in recent NBA history. What’s more concerning is the fact that the Heat lost on their own terms. The scrappiest team in the NBA—a “gnarly” team, in coach Erik Spoelstra’s words—lost battles for loose balls. The most relentless gang rebounding team in the playoff field got outrebounded 58-33, the most lopsided rebounding margin in a Finals game in more than 40 years. The Denver Nuggets didn’t just take Wednesday night’s game and a 2-1 lead in the Finals. They staked a claim to the only competitive ground that could get the Heat back into this series.
“One of the biggest strengths we have is our competitive spirit, nature, just to overcome whatever,” Spoelstra said. “Even if players play well or a team plays well, we figure out how to get the win at the end. We were not able to do that.”
The Heat organization may have filed a registered trademark on Culture™, but they aren’t the only team that can dictate the terms of a game with their effort. Lost in the fact that Murray had a 34-point triple-double was the fact that the smallest player in Denver’s starting lineup came away with 10 rebounds. “I think the biggest thing about that is just giving them one shot,” Murray said. “They’ve got a lot of scorers and shooters over there, so we can’t keep giving them multiple looks, multiple chances.” By contrast, Vincent—Murray’s positional counterpart—had zero rebounds. Aaron Gordon pulled down another 10 boards, while Butler, his matchup, grabbed two. This has been a tough, uncomfortable series for Michael Porter Jr., who has made just three of his 19 shots from beyond the arc. Yet he fought to secure seven rebounds in Game 3, while Kevin Love and Max Strus combined for just six. Even Bam Adebayo, who collected 17 boards, couldn’t win his individual rebounding matchup: the bigger, stronger Jokic came away with 21.
“Really, we’re just scrapping and clawing,” Porter said. “This is a gritty team we’re playing against. It’s not always going to look pretty. We’re just trying to go out there and focus on effort rather than all the uncontrollables. That’s how we’ll get this series.”
The rebounding margin is emblematic of a larger problem for a smaller Miami team. Denver’s advantages in this matchup are literally massive; despite their reputation as a finesse team, the Nuggets field a huge lineup that makes Adebayo, the Heat’s All-Star center, roughly the size of Denver’s third-tallest starter. It takes an incredible amount of work and coordination to overcome that difference in size, whether in defending the Nuggets down low, attempting to finish over their length inside, or battling on the glass against the best-rebounding team of the playoffs. Denver pulled down a punishing 40 percent of its own misses on Wednesday. If Miami isn’t grabbing enough offensive boards or turning up enough loose balls to win the possession battle, their means of equalizing this series will vanish into thin air. The Nuggets already boast the best player in the sport, and have surrounded him with a uniformly talented supporting cast. Countering that alone takes smart game planning and unflagging intensity—and even then, the Heat could still lose when Jokic plays as Jokic does. The less talented team can’t afford to be less persistent, too.
There are lots of ways in this series for the Nuggets to win. The Heat can manufacture their fair share, too, but they all rely on the same basic mechanisms: outworking, outfoxing, and outlasting an on-paper favorite. Miami pulled that off for three straight playoff rounds, mounting a truly remarkable run to the NBA Finals. No one can count out an 8-seed that has rebutted every pundit and crashed every predictive model just to get to this point. But the Heat accomplished all that by playing their way. They fought for every point that could be had on the game’s margins, and worked collectively to scrounge together enough pure-effort plays to offset whatever their opponents did best.
Miami couldn’t always outrebound its opponents, but it could gut out enough tough, contested boards to close the gap. It’s harder to do that against Jokic, who regularly requires two Heat players just to box him out. It might be impossible for Miami to make up any real ground at all when Jokic’s teammates also rebound this well across the board. It’s rare to see Miami handled like this, but the Nuggets are a rare opponent with a particular capacity to control the glass. In these playoffs overall, four different Heat players have averaged at least five rebounds per game. In Game 3, only one (Adebayo) managed even that many. The Heat lost big on the boards, and with that lost some of their essential edge.
“I just think sometimes, for us, when we lose a lot of those physical battles—the effort plays, the loose balls, the rebounding battles—that’s our identity,” Spoelstra said. “And sometimes that can affect the flow of the rest of your game.”
There is an attrition that comes when opponents swoop in from every position to snatch away rebounds, extending their possessions and snuffing out yours. It takes a toll when a team seems to come up with every loose ball in a critical game, seizing all the momentum. The Heat are just finally on the receiving end of it all, still sorting out for themselves how to survive.