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Heat reach a mile-high peak with 111-108 victory in Denver to tie NBA Finals 1-1

DENVER — The Miami Heat’s shock and awe continues.

This time at altitude.

And with an attitude.

Until Sunday night, visitors were 0-9 against the Denver Nuggets this postseason at mile-high Ball Arena..

Of course, prior to this season, no No. 8 seed had made the NBA Finals during an uninterrupted season.

For the Heat, just another step forward on this unlikeliest of playoff rides, turning thin air in a breath of new life with a 111-108 victory that evened the best-of-seven championship series at 1-1 heading into Wednesday night’s Game 3 at Kaseya Center.

Seizing control in the fourth quarter, the Heat were able to overcome a 41-point performance by Denver center Nikola Jokic with a cross-section of contributions.

Gabe Vincent led the Heat with 23 points, with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo adding 21 apiece.

The game ended on a wayward potential game-tying 3-pointer from Nuggets guard Jamal Murray.

Five Degrees of Heat from Sunday’s game:

1. Closing time: The Heat went up 11 early and led 26-23 at the end of the opening period. The Nuggets then went up 15 in the second period before the Heat closed within 57-51 at halftime.

The Heat tied it 66-66 midway through the third quarter, but the Nuggets closed out the period on a 6-0 run to take an 83-75 lead into the fourth.

A 3-pointer by Vincent with 10:10 to play then gave the Heat their first lead of the second half, at 86-85, as part of a 15-2 Heat run to open the fourth.

But on the ensuing Nuggets’ possession both Vincent and Adebayo were called for their fourth fouls.

No matter.

The Heat then moved to a 107-95 lead with 3:39 to play on a Caleb Martin 3-pointer, with Denver trimming the deficit to 109-106 with 1:29 to play on a basket by former University of Miami wing Bruce Brown.

From there, a 3-pointer by guard Jamal Murray got Denver within 109-106 with 69 seconds to play.

After scores on both ends, it then was 111-108 when the Nuggets gained possession with 14.6 seconds left, the game ending on Murray’s miss.

2. Jokic up; Butler not: Had the playoffs been included in the voting process, it is likely Jokic would be your 2023 NBA Most Valuable Player.

His playoff sizzle continued with an 18-point third quarter that came on 8-of-9 shooting from the field and 5-of-6 shooting from the line.

This was not Jokic going for triple-doubles, without an assist in the period. This was Jokic showing he also can score at will.

The same could not be said for Butler, who went into the fourth quarter with 13 points on 4-of-13 shooting, continuing his struggles against the Nuggets’ defense after a playoff-low 13-point performance in Game 1.

To his credit, Butler came around to finish 7 of 19.

3. All, not nothing: After missing all 10 of his shots in a scoreless Game 1, including nine 3-point attempts, Heat guard Max Strus converted his first two attempts from beyond the arc and had 12 points in the first period on 4-of-7 3-point shooting.

Strus was the game’s leading scorer at halftime with his 14 points.

4. Rotation revision: Kevin Love was back in the Heat starting lineup in a bid to counter the Nuggets’ size, with Martin shifted back to the reserve role he largely had held since Love was acquired on Feb. 20.

Love had been removed from the lineup in Game 6 against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, after Boston went to a smaller starting lineup, not appearing in the three games prior to Sunday.

“I’ve been kind of doing that anyway,” Martin said of the move to the bench.

The switch also eased the approach with Martin, who missed Saturday’s practice due to illness and still appeared symptomatic in the locker room pregame. Martin played only six first-half minutes.

Love immediately got to doing what he does best, drawing an early charge and ended with 10 rebounds.

5. Waiting game: Having resumed contact work upon the Heat’s Tuesday arrival to Denver, and having had a productive practice Saturday, Tyler Herro nonetheless remained inactive for the Heat.

Herro has been working back from a broken hand sustained in the first half of the Heat’s April 16 playoff opener against the Bucks.

“He is progressing,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’re really encouraged by the progress. He started doing contact work as soon as we got to Denver.

“We have to maintain perspective. We want to be responsible about this. We’re all excited and encouraged by his progress, but we’ll get back to Miami. All we’re doing is sticking to the process, trying to stack positive days, also understanding this is not trying to return to a game in December. This is the Finals. So, there is a little bit of context to this.”

Nuggets coach Michael Malone said his team is prepared for a Herro return.

“We’ve talked about knowing he’s going to come back at some point in this series,” he said. “Hasn’t played since Game 1 of that Milwaukee series. He’s been out for a while. We know what kind of talent he is. His ability to play off the bounce, create for himself, create for his teammates and obviously shoot the three ball.

“If and when he becomes available, our guys will be ready, from a personnel standpoint and a game-plan standpoint.”

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