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DENVER, USA – For a debuting NBA finalist, Denver made it look quite easy.
The Nuggets, who reached the championship round for the first time in franchise history, quickly brushed off rust worries after a nine-day layoff and cruised easily against the Miami Heat, 104-93, in Game 1 on Thursday, June 1 (Friday, June 2, Manila time).
Nuggets center Nikola Jokic had another triple-double, collecting 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 14 assists. Jamal Murray scored 26 points and dished out 10 assists, while three other teammates scored at least 10 points or more. The Western Conference top seed also led by more than 20 points multiple times and kept the Heat at bay during the fourth quarter.
Denver still unbeaten at home
The Nuggets have been 9-0 in their home floor throughout the playoffs, but heading into finals opener, head coach Michael Malone reminded his wards that the Heat won all their Game 1 playoff matches versus favored foes – the Milwaukee Bucks, the New York Knicks, and the Boston Celtics.
“So, we did not want them coming in here taking control of the series on our court,” said Malone.
The Nuggets front man, though, anticipates a different Game 2.
“We’ve done a hell of a job all season long of protecting our home court,” he said. “We know Sunday night is going to be a hell of a challenge.”
Nuggets need complete game
The Nuggets limited the Heat to 63 points in the first three quarters. However, Malone highlighted their late defensive lapses as the Nuggets also saw their opponent make a run in the fourth quarter.
“We’re up 21 to start that fourth quarter, and they open up with a quick 8-0 run, turnover, layup. We missed a few open shots against the zone, gave up some threes,” Malone said.
He pointed out that the Nuggets gave up 30 points in the fourth quarter, even allowing the Heat to make 60% of their shots.
“I think as I told our players, we’re up 1-0, that’s great, but we have to close games out,” said Malone.
“In the Finals, you can’t pick and choose when you want to play. We’ve got to play much closer to 48 minutes.”
Heat fail to sizzle beyond the arc
Miami’s road to the finals saw them shoot the lights out against their Eastern Conference opponents in the playoffs.
Entering Game 1 of the finals series, the Heat had a 39% three-point field goal clip. But Denver made it difficult for them as the visiting team.
Heat snipers Max Strus and Duncan Robinson finished a combined 1-for-14 from three-point range as the Heat wound up with a 13-of-39 (33%) from beyond the arc through the night.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, though, was quick to douse any doubts about his shooting guards.
“Our game is not built just on the three-point ball. We have proven that time and time again,” he said. “We can win games. We can win series, regardless of how the three is going.”
“We also have ignitable guys. You see a couple go through and that also can become an avalanche. One way or the other, we have to find a way to get the job done,” said Spoelstra, who entered his sixth finals series in his coaching career.
Miami not attacking the basket
Another glaring stat line for the Heat in Game 1 was the two free throws they attempted all game long – an NBA Finals record for least number of free throw attempts in a playoff game.
Jimmy Butler was quick to recognize this and took responsibility for not jumpstarting their offense.
“Probably because we shot a lot of jump shots, myself probably leading that pack, instead of putting pressure on the rim, getting layups, getting to the free throw line,” Butler said in the post-game interview.
“When you look at it during the game, they all look like the right shots. And I’m not saying that we can’t as a team make those. But, we have got to get more layups, got to get more free throws. And whenever you miss and don’t get back, the game gets out of hand kind of quickly.”
“We gave up too many layups which we also can’t have happen, Butler added. “But that’s it as a whole. We’ve got to attack the rim a lot more, myself included.”
A legend remembered
Almost a year since the death of Bill Russell, the basketball legend’s memory again hung over the league.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver noted that it will be the first time, with the exception of the bubble season in 2020, that Russell won’t be around to hand over the Finals MVP trophy.
All 30 teams have been commemorating Russell this season by wearing a black No. 6 patch on their jerseys in all games. It remains the same this finals series, and his No. 6 also stays on the arena floor. The NBA had also announced that it’s retiring No. 6 league-wide.
“With the exception of those COVID seasons, this will be the first season that Bill Russell won’t be here to present his namesake trophy of the Finals MVP,” Silver said of the Boston Celtics great.
“He’s somebody who everyone here – I know many of you in the media knew him well, and was someone I got to spend an enormous amount of time with over my 30-plus years with the league. Just wanted to mark his passing again and his impact on the league.”
Russell, a five-time Most Valuable Player, won 11 NBA championships and was also the league’s first Black coach. – Rappler.com