The Heat were tested against Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets, leaders of the Western Conference, on Monday on the eve of Valentine’s Day, in a Miami-Dade Arena that was attended by Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel and without Tyler Herro, one of their best players out with a blow to his left knee.
In a hard-fought game, the Denver team ended up winning 112-108 against a Miami team that, after battling with all its strength, fell with its boots on and was unable to give the favorite gift to its beloved fans.
The key to the defeat was the poor defense of the team from the Sun Capital against another club that surpassed them in stature and had the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
Coach Erik Spoelstra’s turnovers in the second quarter threw away what the team played well in the first quarter and were decisive in the outcome.
Despite falling, the Heat (32-26) remained in 6th place in the East, but moved a half-game behind the Nets (5th), who they visit on Wednesday, and allowed the Knicks (7th) to close to within a game.
Miami shot for an acceptable 43.8 percent (34.4% on three-pointers), but let Denver outscore them with 57.9 shooting from the field (39.3% on three-pointers) in a great battle.
Jimmy Butler brushed a triple double with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists to lead the Heat offense. He could have reached 28, but he had a basket disallowed and missed alone under the hoop on a big play at the end that put his team within two boards.
Max Strus was very aggressive and had a great night with 23 points (4 three-pointers), seven rebounds and four assists.
He made a mistake by not trying to score the third free throw that brought the team within two points, he shot at the rim hard, but he was very good overall.
Bam Adebayo had a great fight with Jokic under the hoop and still put 19 points on the board, adding two rebounds, two assists and two steals to his fine performance.
Gabe Vincent delivered again with 15 points (4 three-pointers), four rebounds and four assists.
Jamarre Bouyea, the 10-day contract man, did a good job and added 10 good points coming off the bench.
For Denver, Jokic stood out with 27 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. He was seconded by Michael Porter with 17, Bruce Brown with 16 and Jeff Green with 12.
Vlatko Cancar, Christian Braun and Thomas Bryant scored 10 points each.
The first half ended 65-62 in favor of the Nuggets with 15 points from Jokic and 12 from Porter, after two very different quarters in which Butler with 14 units and Adebayo with 13 were Miami’s best.
The Heat played a great first quarter and fairly finished ahead 36-27, with 9 points from Adebayo and 6 from Butler, Strus and Vincent respectively, after breaking the tie with a 10-0 rally. They were leading by 11 points, without a single turnover and applying a good defense that left Jokic in only four units.
In the second, Spoelstra put together the duos of Bouyea-Vincent and Haywood Highsmith-Caleb Martin which was not only abusive to Adebayo, but a sacrilege to basketball.
The result was an 11-0 run by Denver that brought them back to life winning the quarter 38-26 and going to rest down by three.
At the start of the third the Heat managed to pull ahead, but then the Nuggets ran away by 10 and although Miami eventually cut the deficit to four, they took the quarter 24-21 to extend the lead 89-83 with Jovic reaching 25 points.
With five straight points from Strus, which brought his total to 18, the Heat pulled to within three at the start of the fourth quarter, and one after that, but couldn’t hunt them down despite battling with all their might. Denver responded to each basket by keeping the distance despite losing the final quarter 25-23 to seal the win by four in Miami.