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Jokic, Nuggets too much as wayward Heat fall 104-93 in NBA Finals opener

DENVER – The Miami Heat now will have to flip the script.

Having won their opening game of their first three series during this underdog run to the NBA Finals, the Heat for the first time this postseason will have to play from behind.

Three days after an emotional Game 7 road victory to push past the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, the Heat had the look of a team short on energy, height and shooting, falling 104-93 Thursday night to Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena.

With their fourth loss in their last five games, the Heat were unable to rekindle the East finals magic of Jimmy Butler, Caleb Martin and their 3-point shooters.

Butler this time closed with 13 points, seven rebounds and seven assists and Martin with three points on 1-of-7 shooting.

While Heat center Bam Adebayo finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds, the ultimate man in the middle was Jokic, who was up to a 10-point, 10-assist double-double by halftime, on the way to 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds, his ninth triple-double this postseason.

The Nuggets also got 26 points and 10 assists from Jamal Murray, 16 points from Aaron Gordon and 14 points and 12 rebounds from Michael Porter Jr.

Beyond Adebayo, the Heat got 19 points from guard Gabe Vincent and 18 points from backup forward Haywood Highsmith.

The Heat closed at .406 from the field and 13 of 39 on 3-pointers.

Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern, before shifting to South Florida, for Game 3 and 4 at Kaseya Center, on Wednesday and Friday nights.

Five Degrees of Heat from Thursday’s game:

1. Closing time: Poor early shooting and an early inability to stop Gordon had the Heat down 29-20 at the end of the first period. Gordon scored 12 in the quarter, with the Heat 9 of 26 from the field in the period.

The power pattern continued through the second period, which ended with Denver up 59-42.

Denver then went into the fourth quarter up 84-63, at .559 from the field at that point, including 8 of 19 on 3-pointers.

An 11-0 run to start the fourth drew the Heat within 84-74, after they had trailed by 24 earlier. A Highsmith 3-pointer later got the Heat within nine, but by then it was too little, too late.

Through it all, the Heat only attempted two free throws, both by Highsmith, the fewest ever by a team in an NBA playoff game.

2. Deep troubles: The Heat stood 4 of 17 on 3-pointers and halftime and never could regain the type of footing beyond the arc they had displayed in the first three rounds.

And it just wasn’t just the longest of outside shots that were off. Midway through the third period, Max Strus was 0 for 9 from the field, including 0 for 8 on 3-pointers, with Martin 0 for 6 from the field. Strus closed 0 for 10 from the field, 0 for 9 on 3-pointers.

Vincent was the lone Heat player with more than one 3-pointer through three periods, finishing 5 of 10 from beyond the arc.

The Heat entered leading the league at .390 on 3-pointers this postseason.

3. Adebayo aggressive: Limited with his offensive impact in the Eastern Conference finals, Adebayo was aggressive early up to 14 points by the midpoint of the second period, in a bid to keep Jokic occupied defensively.

Adebayo’s 14th point was his 1,000th of his playoff career, joining Butler, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh as Heat players with 1,000. He joined Wade as the only Heat players to do it at 25 or younger. Adebayo turns 26 on July 18.

Adebayo’s 25 shots were a career playoff high.

4. Same way: The Heat opened with the undersized starting lineup they utilized to close out the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, with Martin starting at power forward in place of Kevin Love, who did not play.

The Heat further moved away from Love and his limited mobility by playing center Cody Zeller as their first big man off the bench and Highsmith as their first power forward off the bench.

One vote shy of being named Most Valuable Player in the Eastern Conference finals, Martin this time struggled to have an impact, with four rebounds and no assists in his 25 minutes..

5. Inside story: As for the matchup in the middle, the Heat defended Jokic solely with Adebayo at the outset, with Adebayo fronting the Nuggets big man in ball-denial mode. Jokic picked that apart with six first-quarter assists.

The Heat often got caught on switches early, with Gordon able to muscle inside against Strus as part of Denver’s 5-of-5 start in the paint.

Once Jokic took his first rest at the start of the second period, the Heat moved to their zone defense. Once Jokic returned, he continued to pick apart the Heat man-to-man defense.

With his 10 points and 10 assists in the first half, Jokic joined LeBron James as the only players to do that in a playoff half over the past 25 seasons.

Jokic closed 8 of 12 from the field and 10 of 12 from the line;  joining Jason Kidd as the only other player with a triple-double in his NBA Finals debut.

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