Michael Malone is generally the kind of coach who would leave a negative Yelp review after vacationing in Shangri-La. But his worry was warranted this time.
On Saturday, the day before Game 2 of the N.B.A. finals, Malone lamented his team’s poor defense in the first game of the series against the Miami Heat. The Nuggets had given the Heat looks at a lot of wide-open 3-pointers — a bad sign, Malone said, even though good shooters like Max Strus and Duncan Robinson kept missing and Denver won the game.
On Sunday, Strus and Robinson combined for six of Miami’s 17 3-pointers. On a night when the Heat mostly seemed outmatched, their 3-point shooting helped them steal a victory on the road to tie the series at one game apiece. Somewhat appropriately, they won by 3 points: 111-108.
“There was miscommunication, game plan breakdowns, personnel breakdowns,” Malone groused afterward. He added: “We got lucky in Game 1. Tonight, they made them.”
The Heat have frustrated all of their playoff opponents this year by making jump shots they had missed during the regular season. Most teams over the last decade have focused on generating points from the most efficient shots: 3-pointers, free throws and shots at the basket. Miami has followed that trend to an extent, but it was one of the worst 3-point shooting teams during the regular season and had been more likely to grind out points — led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo — by focusing more on midrange baskets.
That’s likely a doomed strategy against Denver, an offensive juggernaut. The Heat cannot match the playmaking of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon. For the Heat to win, they have to remain hot from 3-point range, just as they have been during the postseason.
On Sunday, Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra said that the Heat had been “more intentional” in their offense, suggesting that the plan had been to lean into their 3-point shooting.
“That doesn’t guarantee you anything either,” Spoelstra said. “But at least you give yourself the best chance.”
The Heat have seized on their chances this postseason, shown by their unlikely run to the N.B.A. finals as a No. 8 seed. Kevin Love, who joined the Heat midseason, said he wasn’t aware of the team’s 3-point struggles until he came to Miami.
“I always feel like there’s something to closing the door to the regular season,” Love said, adding: “You just kind of get to reset. And I think guys felt that. They just had another level of confidence and understanding that if we go out there and just be ourselves and play free and play fluid, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win.”
During the regular season, Miami ranked third in shots taken between 10 and 14 feet from the basket, and 10th for shots between five and nine feet. That’s not to say the Heat didn’t shoot enough 3s: They were 10th in attempts per game. They just didn’t make them.
In the second quarter on Sunday night, the Nuggets led by as many as 15. The game was on the verge of turning into a blowout. But Kevin Love, who hadn’t played in the last three games, hit a deep shot to keep the Nuggets within sight. Miami shot 8 for 17 from 3-point range in the first half — which helped the Heat stay within 6 points of Denver at halftime.
The Heat continued to bomb 3’s and tied the game relatively early in the third quarter. Denver still led going into the fourth quarter, but the 3s helped the Heat keep the game within reach, allowing for a comeback.
In the final frame, it was Robinson’s turn. His two 3s in the opening minutes cut the Nuggets’ lead to 2. Miami’s eventual victory was its seventh of this postseason run after being down by at least 10 points. It has matched the 2022 Golden State Warriors and the 2011 and 2012 Heat for the most double-digit comebacks in one postseason in the last 25 years.
While the Heat do have some strong shooters, they do not include the team’s best players, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. In addition, guard Tyler Herro, one of the team’s best shooters, has missed almost the entire playoff run with a right hand injury.
Miami’s offense often centers on Adebayo grabbing the ball at the elbow and using his passing skills, or Butler driving the baseline and using shot fakes and strength to create space for himself.
In the playoffs, Miami flipped a switch. Suddenly, its 3-pointers have begun to fall at an elite clip. Entering Game 2, the Heat had been the best 3-point shooting team in the playoffs at 38.7 percent. In the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics, the Heat shot 43.4 percent from 3 over seven games.
Asked if he had knew why the Heat suddenly improved their shooting, Cody Zeller, Miami’s reserve center, said he thought that the regular season “was inaccurate.”
“The playoffs are more accurate as far as how good of a shooter our guys are,” Zeller said. “We haven’t been surprised by guys making shots in the playoffs. We’re more surprised by not making shots during the regular season.”
The 3-pointer, which teams are more reliant on than ever, is a high variance shot. Offenses can create many open looks, but players are still shooting a ball into a circle that is 10 feet off the ground. You’re more likely to miss than make them. But if a team gets hot over a couple games, it doesn’t matter what the other team does defensively. The Celtics saw that and so did the Nuggets in Game 2.
The Nuggets have more offensive weapons than the Heat. For the Heat to keep pace, the answer is to keep shooting more and more 3s.
“In terms of the shooters, that’s pretty simple: Let it fly. Ignite. Once they see two go down, it could be three, it could turn into six just like that,” Spoelstra said Saturday, while snapping his fingers.
In the regular season, the ideal tactic to defend the Heat was to focus on Butler and Adebayo and gum up the middle, forcing the ball to the perimeter. After all, during the regular season, the Heat shot 34.3 percent — a low-ish number — from 3 on shots considered open, according to the N.B.A.’s statistics. No N.B.A. defense can take away everything from an opposing offense.
Strategies are generally to push teams toward what they’re not great at. The Celtics did just that, and Miami made them pay at a rate of 42.1 percent on open 3-pointers.
The temptation when a team goes cold on its deep shots is to focus more on getting shots near the rim. In Game 2, the Heat rarely went to the rim, only shooting 10 times in the restricted area.
Miami heads home with the series tied at one game each. Once again, the Heat won a playoff game they weren’t expected to win on shots they weren’t expected to make.
“That’s what this game is,” Butler said. “Make or miss game. Make or miss league. We made some shots. They didn’t.”