Heat can’t get past Nuggets on guts alone

Nikola Jokic had his way with Miami, recording a triple-double

For once a Miami Heat 2023 playoff game played out the way that was expected. The Denver Nuggets are bigger, more talented, and won Game 1 of the NBA Finals by a double-digit margin — 104-93.

In an assessment relying on the eyeball test, statistics, or both, the conclusion would be that the Heat have no chance in this series. The Nuggets’ postseason net rating is more than double that of the Heat. During the regular season, the Nuggets won nine more games than their Finals opponent. While the Heat crawled into the playoffs after losing their first play-in game on their home floor, the Nuggets wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference so early that Nikola Jokić did not play in four of the final six games of the regular season.

By any analysis, this series should be considered a mismatch, except for the fact that somehow Heat have shoved their way into the NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed. They rolled through an Eastern Conference that was considered by those who cover the NBA to be the strongest of the two. A first since at least the turn of the millennium. The Heat’s unexpected run looked like it was on the verge of collapse in Game 1, but somehow they fought back and avoided being demolished on national broadcast television.

The Heat trailed by 24 points with 40 seconds remaining in the third quarter. By the 9:29 mark of the fourth, the Heat had cut the lead to 10 points after going on a 14-0 run. While the Heat did not win, playing Game 1 at altitude with only two days rest after playing all seven games of a conference-finals series, slicing that far into a 20-plus point lead is further proof of their resilience. After all of the upsets that the Heat have pulled off in 2023, even though this is the first Game 1 that they have lost this postseason, why shouldn’t they think of Thursday night as a positive?

Denver is healthy, unlike Milwaukee and Boston

The Nuggets are the only healthy team that the Heat have faced in a seven-game series this postseason besides the New York Knicks. Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks are a hardscrabble bunch, but also struggle mightily to convert from the field. The Milwaukee Bucks were playing with a hobbled Giannis Antetokounmpo, and against the Boston Celtics Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon were both dealing with upper body injuries that hampered their scoring ability. In Game 7, Jayson Tatum turned his ankle on the Celtics’ first possession.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope left the court at the end of the third quarter of Game 1, but was able to return in the fourth to finish the game. Not only are the Nuggets loaded with talent 1-6 in their lineup, but they are also largely healthy. They are certainly healthier than the Heat with Jimmy Butler perpetually dealing with knee problems, Tyler Herro having missed all but a few moments of the postseason with a broken hand, and the ankle that Gabe Vincent turned in Game 4 against the Celtics.

Herro might be ready for Game 2 on Sunday, but he hasn’t played in an NBA basketball game since April 16. The Heat might finally be outmanned. Even if they were completely healthy the Nuggets would still have an advantage when it comes to top-end talent. All that the Heat can rely on in this series is the guile and grit that has been a part of “Heat Culture” since Pat Riley arrived from New York.

The Heat played with that culture force in the fourth quarter of Game 1, and the result was a mildly competitive finish. However, can sheer will keep them alive in a series against a vastly superior team?

The Nuggets are clicking on all cylinders and after one game have no significant injuries to any player in their rotation. If the Nuggets’ health of their rotation players remains, only variance will be able to hinder their shooting percentages.

In no way will the Heat allow the 2023 NBA Finals to be an easy ride for the Nuggets, but if there was ever a postseason series in which their basketball talent discrepancy will be made plain, this is the one.

Never trust an NBA Eastern Conference team

You really think the Knicks are gonna advance any further?

It’s getting pretty freaking unfunny how quickly the playoffs can flip narratives. The NBA’s Eastern Conference is supposed to be the superior of the two, with the three best records belonging to Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia, and four of the top six marks overall. The first round was going to reinforce that, yet the one and four seeds lost in five games, the Celtics needed six tries to finally put down Trae Young, and Joel Embiid is reminding us of why we have to be talked into the 76ers at the beginning of each year.

The only team in the East that’s its best postseason self year-in and year-out is Miami, and the Heat lost a play-in game in a non-competitive fashion before turning into a pack of pitbulls but not until losing their second-best scoring option. The case for which conference is walking away with the title heavily includes the Heat, and that should tell you all you need to know about which way I’m leaning.

Out West, at least the results are following a form of recognizable logic: One seed wins in five, as does the team featuring Kevin Durant, with Steph Curry- and LeBron James-led teams a win away from the second round. Boston is still the favorite to take home the title, but four of the top six franchises on that list — Phoenix, Denver, Golden State, and Los Angeles — hail from the West.

The Warriors and Lakers are giving me nightmares of another title run, Durant and Devin Booker are doing their best Benicio Del Toro Sicarios impressions, and Nikola Jokić shrugged off the biggest frontline he’s going to face like they were kindergartners. I’m assuming there are odds for which conference is going to win the title, and that the payout for the West isn’t that great.

Something amiss about the Celtics

That something is Jayson Tatum. I keep waiting for the MVP candidate from the first half of the season to reappear, and for whatever reason, we’re getting the version of Tatum that’s sort of settling for threes while only hitting 33 percent of them, going 21-of-60 from deep against Atlanta. The Hawks were able to throw a bunch of bodies at him, and take the ball out of his hands, so the increased attention is a contributing factor, as well.

It’s nice that Jaylen Brown is playing so well, but this is the postseason. The 1A alpha dogs are supposed to be cooking with napalm a la Booker or Jimmy Butler aka Playoff Jimmy. We’ll likely see a more effective Tatum against the Sixers because perimeter defense is optional in Philly, but both potential ECF foes have wings to throw at Boston.

This is incidentally the case for Boston still being the title favorite because other than the Warriors, the remaining West squads don’t have the greatest personnel to stop the likes of Brown and Tatum. (That’s assuming Sacramento or Memphis are done.) Look at what Kawhi Leonard did in his healthy minutes against Phoenix, or Anthony Edwards’ series facing the Nuggets. It could be a field day for the C’s granted they get there. However, that’s a big leap to make with the question marks cropping up like crazy in the latter half of the first round.

If you listen to Celtics’ fans, they don’t fully trust the point guard spot, or at least the way Joe Mazzulla is managing it late in games. There was a lot of Marcus Smart and Al Horford during the 16-6 run the Celtics used to put away the Hawks in Game 6, and that’s troubling considering how Smart has looked this year, and Horford’s age.

Boston is legitimately lucky this didn’t go to seven, and that they didn’t fully join the other two East teams whose regular-season form completely melted away once the playoffs started. While it may be anybody’s year writ large, I’ll take anybody from the West over the East until further notice. 

Ranking the top postseason performances in Miami Heat history

Image for article titled Ranking the top postseason performances in Miami Heat history

Jimmy Butler had a memorable Game 4 against the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday, dropping 56 points in a 119-114 victory over the No. 1 seed.

For a team that’s been around 34 years, the Miami Heat have a rather rich history in the NBA. They’ve won three league titles over the last 17 years, and have a shot at adding to that in this postseason. So, we’ve seen some stellar games out of Heat players over the years even going back to the 1990s before they’d ever even won the Eastern Conference. Now let’s see how Butler’s performance ranks among the top playoff performances in Miami Heat history.

Image for article titled Ranking the top postseason performances in Miami Heat history

It was hard not to rank this game higher on the list, but nine-block playoff games aren’t quite as rare as you might think. It’s a hell of an accomplishment by far, but it tied Alonzo Mourning for second all-time in the postseason with 10 other occurrences. Hakeem Olajuwon and Dwight Howard both had two playoff games where they blocked nine or more shots. Still, Alonzo Mourning is one of the top two most beloved players in the Heat’s history, along with Dwyane Wade, who you’ll see plenty on this list.

Image for article titled Ranking the top postseason performances in Miami Heat history

The Killer Crossover was in full effect here as Hardaway had himself a career-defining game bouncing the Knicks in game seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Hardaway scored a postseason career-high 38 points while shooting 60% overall from the field and from 3-point range.

Image for article titled Ranking the top postseason performances in Miami Heat history

Jimmy Buckets showed up in a big way in this game against the Hawks and decided to take the game over early on, realizing that it had to be on his shoulders. Only three other Heat players scored double-digits, and no one besides Butler scored more than 15 points in the game.

Butler joined some elite Heat company with his game two performance. He became just the third player in franchise history to post a 45-5-5 game in the playoffs, joining Wade and LeBron James. And Butler is the only one to accomplish this while committing zero turnovers. That sideline blow-up involving Butler, Eric Spoelstra, and Udonis Haslem feels like so long ago.

LeBron and the Heat had some battles with the Pacers during his time in Miami. James was just two rebounds short of a 40-20 double-double in this game. Those are Wilt Chamberlain type numbers from a wing player. Oh, and James was also one assist shy of messing with a triple-double. The Pacers actually came into this game with a 2-1 series lead. While Indiana was scrappy, they had no answers for James in this game and lost this series in six games.

Image for article titled Ranking the top postseason performances in Miami Heat history

In this instant classic thriller of an NBA Finals game, Butler played all but one minute, posting his second triple-double of the series with only seven available players on an already overmatched Heat roster. I can remember watching this game and noting how exhausted Miami looked down the stretch of this game and Jimmy making big play after big play squeaking out a three-point victory to stay alive. I know people frown because this happened in the Orlando bubble, but it was still an outstanding display from Butler and the Heat.

Image for article titled Ranking the top postseason performances in Miami Heat history

This game in the East semifinals against Brooklyn in 2014 tied James’ second-highest scoring game for his career in the postseason. Dropping 49 on Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett was like icing on the cake for LeBron en route to sending two rivals packing again in six games.

Over the first half of James’ career, I’d guess that he enjoyed beating no team more than Boston and Brooklyn when Pierce and Garnett were there. Garnett was such a great trash talker that you almost couldn’t help but take it personally. So instead of trying to match wits, Bron did the next best thing and kicked their asses whenever he got the chance.

Image for article titled Ranking the top postseason performances in Miami Heat history

Butler put Miami on his back in game three of the 2020 Finals, as the Heat were in danger of going down 3-0 in the series. Jimmy’s 40-point triple-double was completed on sheer will and refusing to let Miami lose this game. The remarkable thing about Butler’s game that night is that he shot the ball 20 times, and not one was a 3-point attempt. In the age of everybody wanting to be Stephen Curry, Butler dropped 40 and never shot once from that distance.

Image for article titled Ranking the top postseason performances in Miami Heat history

In the close-out game of the 2006 Finals against Dallas, Wade did a little bit of everything. He posted a 36-point double-double, dished five assists, came up with four steals, and even blocked three shots. That was it. Wade was a made man in South Beach after bringing a title home for the Heat faithful. It felt like the Mavericks had already been demoralized, having dropped three straight heading into Game 6. It was only a matter of time before Wade put them out of their misery.

Image for article titled Ranking the top postseason performances in Miami Heat history

After lighting up the Eastern Conference in 2022, Jimmy Buckets picks back up where he left off in the ECF against Boston last year. He’s scored at least 30 points in three of the first four games in the first round against Milwaukee this year, highlighted by a 56-point classic in game four. Butler was magnificent in this game as he outdueled Giannis Antetokounmpo, who posted a triple-double.

Butler wouldn’t be denied on this night, as he scored 22 in the first quarter of this game. He scored 20 in a row at one point in that opening period. Because of this historical performance, Jimmy joined an exclusive group posting one of the highest-scoring games in NBA playoff history. The 56 points Butler dropped tied him for fourth, with only Michael Jordan (63), Elgin Baylor (61), and Donovan Mitchell (57) outdoing him. Butler says playoff Jimmy isn’t a thing. It’s time for him to admit that it exists, and it’s a damn good thing.

Image for article titled Ranking the top postseason performances in Miami Heat history

This series had to be extra sweet for James, sending his nemesis Boston Celtics home in grand fashion. Kevin Garnett took credit for “breaking” James in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals when the Celtics sent the Cavs home in six games.

Game 6 of the ECF in 2012 was an elimination game for the Heat, and LeBron showed out, saving the day, torching Boston’s big three for 45-15-5, keeping the series alive, and setting up a game seven that Miami won convincingly.

Image for article titled Ranking the top postseason performances in Miami Heat history

Every Wade game from this Finals could probably be on this list, but Wade had his highest scoring output in Game 5 to give Miami a 3-2 lead after digging themselves an 0-2 hole to start the series. This game is remembered mainly for Wade spending nearly half the game at the free-throw line. He attempted 25 foul shots making 21 of them. That ranks as the second most free throws attempted in a Finals game in NBA history. No. 1 in this category is Wade’s former teammate Shaq, setting the record (39) with the Lakers during the 2000 Finals.

Image for article titled Ranking the top postseason performances in Miami Heat history

The Miami Heat were down 2-0 in the 2006 NBA Finals, and this is where the legend of Dwayne Wade began to take shape. In a must-win, Wade took over, out-scoring and outrebounding running mate Shaquille O’Neal. O’Neal came through with 16 points as the second-leading scorer to Wade’s 42 that night. This game began the swing of momentum in that Finals series which became the Heat’s first NBA championship.

Milwaukee should be embarrassed

Giannis might be banged up, but that’s no excuse for the top-seeded Bucks falling behind 3-1 to the Heat.

Entering the playoffs, Milwaukee was seen as head and shoulders above the rest of the Eastern Conference despite dealing with injuries to key players all season. Someone forgot to pass that memo to the Miami Heat, who have come out the gates smoking hot and now have a 3-1 lead over the Bucks.

A team that prides itself on its defense allowed Jimmy Butler to drop 56 points on them and do it in a late-game comeback. Game 4 of this first-round series wasn’t a matchup where Giannis Antetokounmpo was ineffective due to his back injury — he posted a triple-double with 26 points, 13 assists, and 10 rebounds. Jimmy Buckets just wasn’t going to lose on Monday night.

While Giannis’ back shouldn’t be used as an excuse for losing, it’s absolutely a concern with his team facing a 3-1 deficit. Milwaukee looked out of sorts, especially late in the fourth quarter, when Miami made its final run to get back into the game and eventually take the lead. They started a 13-0 run with just over six minutes left in regulation and Butler capped it off with an emphatic dunk to take a 102-101 lead with 3:17 remaining.

At that point, you could see the life and energy completely drained from the Bucks. They looked defeated. Following the game, TNT’s Inside the NBA crew broke down this all-time great performance by Jimmy F’n Butler, and Charles Barkley notably mentioned how strange it was that Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer didn’t call a timeout to stop the Heat’s momentum during that 13-0 run. Barkley may say and do some outlandish things, but he was on point with this comment.

That final run by Miami may have been the beginning of the end for Milwaukee. Everybody knows Butler isn’t going to quit, especially in the playoffs, but no one outside of Dade County expected the Heat to have a real shot at winning this series. Now they are one game away from becoming the first No. 8 seed to upset a No. 1 since Philly did it to Chicago in 2012.

Boston was supposed to be Milwaukee’s biggest challenge this year and the only team really standing in their way of returning to the NBA Finals. Now they will have to go seven games if they plan to advance. In this series, they’ve already lost one game at home to the Heat, so game five shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion. They’ll need to come out and play like everything is on the line because it is.

The worst is the villain — in this case Aaron Rodgers —getting away with it

Goodbye Green Bay, hello East Rutherford, NJ

We here on the shores of Lake Michigan have been eating it from our neighbors to the north, the Green Bay Packers, for 25 years or so. When it goes on that long, you really stop dreaming of revenge or the tables ever turning your way, and certainly of things evening out. But there’s always a faint ember or two. You can’t ever let go of the hope that you will live long enough (and there are plenty of Bears fans who haven’t. You know what our diet is.) that either Brett Favre and/or Aaron Rodgers would have to watch a reversal of fortunes. Just in one season, maybe only one game. Especially now as Rodgers’s mind turns to dirt and his legs to cardboard in his old age, that he would have to know that it would be different after he’s gone. If only once, it was the tiniest hold to reach for. We had been reduced to just wanting one moment. And much like we did with Rodgers for way too fucking long, whiffed again.

We didn’t get it with Favre, though we did get the pleasure of bouncing his head off a frozen turf like a basketball to end his career (and off to much worse things than football!). It was little solace, but something. It only got worse with Rodgers, as his hand on our forehead as we wildly swung our far too short arms became a national story and then a joke. There was always a fucking Sunday night game, and there was always a fucking SNF-produced cartoon about his 439-2 record against us or whatever it was, and there was always another goddamn cartoon about the cavalcade of shitheads and fuckwits we tossed out at QB against him. Every. Fucking. Season. You all complained, we all agreed, and yet it happened every fall.

Off to the Big Apple

And now he’ll toddle off to New York too, just like the last jackass. He may be even more toast than Favre was, though you can bet he’ll put up a couple of good games in September that will have the national media drowning in their own essence. We can be sure when it goes to shit in December, which it probably will — Rodgers will be 40 and these are the Jets, for fuck’s sake — it won’t be Rodgers’s fault. Maybe that’s why he’s so desperate to play for the Jets, because he knows whatever happens he’ll either be the only one in history to un-Jets the Jets, or it’ll be JETS.

But we won’t get our moment. We now have to wear the whole thing, the decade and a half of eating shit. He won’t have to witness the changing of the guard, which it will be now. You may think we’re all just Charlie Brown running up to the Lucy-held football again, but we’ll kick that damn thing at the end of a Justin Fields MVP season. Some years down the road Cris Collinsworth will be putting that grating laugh and smile over another cartoon about how Fields has been running over the Packers for years. It’s coming.

But Rodgers won’t be there to see it. He gets away clean. It’s the last middle finger to us, that he just gets to walk away from the table. Couldn’t even give us one morsel. A last indignity. Something our friends in green and gold will lord over us forever.

We usually have gotten one last kick, even though we’ve been a pretty shoddy sports town for a while. Brent Seabrook sent the Red Wings to the Eastern Conference so they could keep their horseshit playoff streak wheezing for a couple more years on the way to a second Cup. Kyle Schwarber punted the Cardinals into orbit in their only playoff meeting ever.

But the Bears are our center, applicable to everyone here, and Rodgers sat on it forever. And now he gets to leave without turning around, without hearing our cries. We’ll have to find our salvation elsewhere. It will always sting, just a little bit.

Right in the yambag

And now your nightly pills-shot from the Memphis Grizzlies, brought to you by @RickRudeSells:

Dirty hit by Cale Makar

Don’t worry, the NHL has decided to keep up, on a night that otherwise contained some great hockey. Cale Makar’s favorite player growing up was Dale Hunter, apparently.

Just kidding, Makar was like 10 years from being born when Hunter did this to Pierre Turgeon. Somehow, the refs downgraded this from a major and an ejection to a minor penalty after review. Even if Makar’s story was he couldn’t hear the whistle, the puck is nowhere near them and hasn’t been for some time. Hitting a player nowhere near the puck can’t be anything other than an attempt to injure, and also the most dangerous time in hockey to get hit because there’s no way to prepare for it.

Makar should get a suspension, which will make things just tricky enough to get worrisome for the Avalanche, who dropped this one in OT to see the series tied at 2.

World-class Mikko Rantanen goal

We can balance by gawking at this goal from Mikko Rantanen, which can’t be described as anything other than world class:

What a catch by Wander Franco

Speaking of which, Wander Franco:

Rays are really taking the piss these days, especially at home. Apparently not using gloves is a way to make it more of a challenge. Didn’t work. They won their 14th straight at The Trop.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.

Did not foresee the 76ers being the most impressive team in the playoffs

James Harden dribbles against Cameron Johnson during the second half of Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs at Barclays Center.

Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets is a game that would normally be a disappointing loss for the “Trust the Process” era Philadelphia 76ers. The opportunity to close out a first-round series against an inferior team, along with a Joel Embiid injury to navigate.

In 2021, the result was a Game 4 loss to the Washington Wizards when up 3-0 as the top seed in the Eastern Conference — Philly went on to close out the series in five games. Last season they were up 3-0 against the Toronto Raptors. The 76ers lost two in a row before defeating the Raptors in six games.

There’s no ‘I’ in team

Embiid suffered a knee injury during Game 4 of Wizards series, and played through a torn thumb in his shooting hand against the Raptors. He limped through the 76ers’ Game 3 win against the Nets on Thursday, going 5-13 for 14 points. On Sunday, the 76ers closed the series without their MVP candidate. They defeated the Nets 96-88. It was the 76ers first best-of-seven series sweep since 1985, and they are the first team in the 2022 NBA Playoffs to advance to Round 2.

Harris led the charge for the 76ers with Embiid out of the lineup with a knee injury. He attempted 19 shots and scored 25 points. However, it was the 76ers’ defense that allowed them to run away with the game in the fourth quarter.

Mikal Bridges hit a jump shot with 8:55 remaining in the game. The Nets did not make another field goal until the 4:28 mark, and were successful on only four more attempts. One was Nic Claxton alley-oop, and the other three were jump shots with 76ers up by double digits with less than one minute remaining in the game.

Getting the job done

The 76ers only truly dominated the Nets in Game 1, winning 121-101. It took some hot fourth-quarter shooting from Tyrese Maxey for the 76ers to both pull away in Game 2, and escape with a victory in Game 3. That 76ers’ defense though, the Nets broke 100 points only once in the series.

It was unlikely for the 76ers to crumble and suffer one of the worst upsets in franchise history, but for this team to pull out the franchise’s first sweep in 38 years — as a No. 3 seed — a breakthrough has finally taken place.

The Nets were far from one of the league’s most talented teams, but they aren’t much different than the Raptors in 2022 or the Wizards in 2021. With all of the Nets’ wing depth, this series had all the makings of a contender in boxing getting flustered by an awkward southpaw.

Offense was at times difficult to come by for the 76ers, but they got baskets when they needed them the most. Maxey has proven in his third season that he is ready for prime time, and with Harris as the 76ers’ fourth option, they have one of the deepest lineups in the east.

When will Embiid return?

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi reported that Embiid would be available early this week. Because the 76ers handled business, they won’t need him until the weekend at the earliest. The Boston Celtics dropped a game on Friday to the Atlanta Hawks. Even if they do win on Sunday, the earliest that they can close the series is on Tuesday at home. The Celtics — a championship favorite — will be facing a well-rested 76ers team that hasn’t been this confident since Allen Iverson stepped over Tyronn Lue.

Giving a contender credit for a dominant first round might seem superfluous, but the 76ers did actually earn a new badge. They dispatched an inferior — yet feisty — opponent as quickly as humanly possible. Now they get to wait — and their star gets to heal — as the 76ers get ready to play in the most important series in the entirety of the “process.”