For a brief moment on Monday night, it seemed like the Miami Heat might actually keep their Cinderella playoff run alive for another 72 hours as a result of an another furious comeback. After appearing down and out with five minutes to go, the Heat weren’t just back in the game, but ahead as the clock ticked under two minutes. All of a sudden, Denver Nuggets fans were feeling the anguish and confusion that fans of the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics know all too well.
But then, midnight struck. The Heat didn’t score over the final 1:58, and the Nuggets escaped with a 94-89 win in Game 5 of the 2023 NBA Finals to claim their first title in franchise history. For just the fourth time in the playoffs, the Heat lost a single-digit game; they had been 8-3 in such contests entering Monday night.
So what happened? Why were the Heat unable to complete the comeback this time around? Let’s break down their final few possessions.
After Jimmy Butler’s free throws with 1:58 to play put the Heat in front, the Nuggets re-took the lead on a Bruce Brown putback. Trailing by one now, the Heat put the ball in Butler’s hands and asked him to make a play. He did just that. After rejecting a Bam Adebayo screen, Butler drove baseline, drew multiple defenders and kicked it out to Max Strus for a corner 3.
There was nothing wrong with the decision-making here. In fact, it’s pretty much text book drive-and-kick, unselfish basketball. Strus just missed a fairly good look.
Down on the other end, Nikola Jokic missed a layup and Aaron Gordon missed a putback attempt, which left the Heat in the same spot — trailing by one with a chance to take the lead. The Heat once again gave the ball to Butler, this time on a clear out at the top of the key. With the size advantage on Jamal Murray, Butler put his head down and got to the paint.
Once he got two feet in the paint, Butler went to his patented jump stop move, which usually ends with him spinning back away from the basket and either drawing a foul or hitting a short jumper. Only, he never took the shot. He pivoted, probably got away with a travel, then threw the ball to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Let’s slow it down. If you look closely, you can see that the problems start when he lands on the jump stop. His left foot slides out from underneath him, he starts to lose his balance, and from that position he doesn’t have the strength to push off and spin. (He also probably gets fouled by Murray, but he was never getting that call given the level of physicality the referees allowed in this game.)
In any case, he wasn’t looking for excuses after the game. Asked what stood out about the final stretch, Butler replied, “That I turned the ball over. That’s what stood out.”
Caldwell-Pope was fouled after he made the steal, and he made both free throws to put the Nuggets up by three with 24.7 seconds to play. Time was running out, but the Heat still had a real chance to at least reach to overtime. Instead, they wound up with a terrible forced 3 by Butler that turned into a brick that effectively ended the game.
The inbounds play the Heat ran was a common set that many teams use at the end of games. (For a full breakdown of the play, see how the Boston Celtics used it to get Jayson Tatum a game-winner during the regular season.) In short, it’s a classic misdirection play. One player starts in the backcourt and runs off a backscreen at midcourt, while the ball is thrown in to the top of the key. If all goes well, the off-ball action will free up the scorer or shooter to get the ball with some momentum going towards the basket.
It did not go well on this occasion. The Heat didn’t run it particularly well and the Nuggets, specifically Caldwell-Pope, blew it up.
Duncan Robinson starts in the backcourt, Kyle Lowry is the screener and Butler goes to catch the ball. The problems arise immediately. Instead of starting way in the backcourt and sprinting towards the screen, Robinson makes his cut from a standstill, which makes it easier to track him. Lowry, meanwhile, doesn’t set the best screen, and it’s worth wondering if Adebayo should have been the screener here. And then Caldwell-Pope just does a terrific job fighting over the screen and sticking with Robinson to deny the initial catch.
Once the first action is denied, Butler then tries to run an unscripted hand-off with Robinson that nearly results in another turnover. Eventually Butler gets the ball back on the wing and is isolated against Gordon. As bad as things have been to this point, that’s not a terrible spot to be in. But instead of calling for a screen or trying to get into the paint and extend the game, Butler launches a desperation 3 that goes way long.
After Butler’s miss, Brown made two free throws to make it a five-point game, Lowry missed a 3 and the Heat conceded.
Ever since the second round of the play-in tournament against the Chicago Bulls, the Heat had thrived in clutch moments by out-executing and out-hustling their opponents. This time, though, they couldn’t get it done due to a few uncharacteristic mistakes. No one, it turns out, not even Butler and #HeatCulture, is fully immune to the NBA Finals pressure cooker.