In a game that will likely define a season of so-close and yet so-far, the Denver Nuggets fell to the Miami Heat in double-overtime 149-141. It was the highest scoring game in Heat history, and James Johnson had a career-high 31 points, with 18 coming in the overtime sessions. The offensive numbers from the game are staggering, but for Denver fans the one stat that matters is that Denver lost. They fell to 0-2 on this seven game road trip and the playoffs are becoming a fainter possibility with each passing game.
Nikola Jokic got fouled on Denver’s first shot of the game, getting to the line for two and Will Barton followed with a three on the next possession, but the Heat answered with a paint bucket and three of their own. Jokic forced his way under the bucket for another basket and Paul Millsap’s three was followed by Chandler’s coast-to-coast score for a 12-5 Denver lead early. Barton drove the paint on a couple of possessions for points but the Nuggets gave up some paint buckets on the other end to keep the lead under 10. Tyler Johnson hit his second three-pointer of the quarter to cut the lead to 5, but Wilson Chandler answered back with a three of his own.
The lead was 22-15 as Jokic came out to try to get him some time later in the quarter with a the second unit, and the Heat immediately cut the lead to 3. Millsap hit a couple of buckets but the Heat were out-breaking the Nuggets with drives and spin moves, and Olynyk tied it at 26 with a three-pointer. Jokic came back in and hit a nice flip shot, Devin Harris hit a three, but nothing could get Denver any space. Turnovers from Denver involving Torrey Craig threw two possessions away and Denver eked out a 37-36 lead after one.
The two teams exchanged threes to open the second. Barton picked up two fouls on one possession and then finished a three-point play on Denver’s next. A Devin-Harris-to-Plumlee alley oop made it 45-41. The teams traded buckets and even one Miami pass off Devin Harris’s face, as Jokic left the game again for a couple of minutes and Denver kept trying to make its three-headed front court work together. Murray pushed the ball hard to the rim to get some free throws after being scoreless until halfway through the second, but despite a Jokic bank-in on a Murray pass, the Heat took the 57-55 lead with a J.J. Ellington three pointer. Both teams were shooting over 56% from the field to that point, and Chandler stayed both aggressive and lucky.
Jokic and Goran Dragic exchanged threes but Denver miscues especially from Murray and between Denver’s wings and Millsap helped Miami’s shot-making keep it close. Defense for the half was non-existent and not even 31 combined points from Jokic and Chandler could keep the lead for the Nuggets. Denver airballed its final (designed) play of the half and the Heat drove the basket with 0.7 seconds left to take the lead at 64-63 thanks to a 29-10 bench advantage for Miami.
The Heat made a three to open the third, but Denver answered with a Jokic-to-Chandler connection for Jokic’s first assist of the game. Murray hit his first three of the game and Barton pulled up for another to help Denver briefly regain the lead at 70-69. Denver could not slow Miami’s three-point attack, though, as they hit their 10th three-pointer with under 5 minutes gone in the quarter. And then Bam Adebayo rammed home this designed dunk and finished a steal on the other end to get the lead back to 76-70 for the Heat.
Bam Adebayo with the huge throw down on an out of bounds play! pic.twitter.com/w0i5hBU522— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) March 20, 2018
Chandler continued doing work, grabbing rebounds and hitting nearly everything from the field. He had a running rim-protected dunk and Devin Harris got fouled on a three-point shot to keep the Heat lead at single digits, but despite a Jokic three in the final minute the Nuggets had work to do in the fourth quarter as they trailed 92-91 after three.
Nikola Jokic scored Denver’s first points of the final quarter, and Murray hit a three and a pair of free throws to get Denver a 99-95 lead. The teams exchanged turnovers, then threes. Murray made another three after Olynyk got a steal and crossed the 20-point mark, and a Plumlee steal turned into a Chandler dunk. Millsap came in for Jokic with just over 7 minutes left and the Nuggets holding a 107-103 lead. Malone only left Jokic off the court for a minute to get a breather, and the Nuggets got over the foul limit shortly afterward to let them shoot free throws the rest of the way. Olynyk and Ellington continued to blister the Nuggets from deep, and James Johnson’s drive past Millsap tied the game at 111 with 4:37 to go.
The fight to the end was fierce. Murray got blocked on one end, but Barton got a big block on the the other. Dragic hit his first bucket of the second half at a big time. Millsap got poked in the eye on a rebound. Jokic finished off his 31st double-double of the year and made a pair of free throws to give Denver a 116-115 lead with a minute to go.
Miami drew a pair of fouls - one of which was a phantom call - and Dragic gave the Heat the lead back. Malone called for a Jokic iso post-up which he missed in the paint over Bam, then fouled Bam to get him to the line. Adebayo made one of two with 26.8 seconds left to make it 118-116, Miami. Jokic tipped home a miss to tie the game with 10 seconds to go, Richardson missed a well-defended shot over Millsap, and they went to overtime.
Jokic tips it in to tie the game with 10 seconds left. pic.twitter.com/rR9z4OeV0Q— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) March 20, 2018
Chandler and Jokic missed Denver’s first three shots, Olynyk and Johnson made Miami’s first two shots, but Jokic’s three brought Denver back to within 1 at 122-121. After a Heat free throw, Murray made a 3 and Olynyk drew a foul on Jokic to get over the 30-point mark and put the Heat back up 2. Jokic made a pair of free throws to also clear 30 points and re-tie the game, then James Johnson and Will Barton exchanged threes. With no stops to be had, the two teams just threw every bit of offense they could find. Murray made free throws, then Chandler came up with a steal, but neither team could close out the first overtime with a winning basket so after another failed iso against Millsap at the end of the period, they set up for a second overtime.
Nuggets and Heat are heading to DOUBLE OVERTIME IN MIAMI! pic.twitter.com/LmMFLOKSSK— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) March 20, 2018
Ellington hit a three to open the 6th-period scoring. Murray had a forced heave at the buzzer that barely hit rim. Jokic got called for his fifth foul, an offensive elbow, then Johnson made a layup to stretch Miami’s lead to 136-131. The Nuggets finlly got a late game ATO bucket to go as Murray splashed a 3, but Miami answered with one of their own. Ellington’s dagger rattled out but Denver couldn’t capitalize. James Johnson buried yet another three to put Miami up 8, its largest lead of the night. Miami fouled Murray behind the arc, and he hit 2 of 3 free throws to make it 142-136, but James Johnson could not be stopped as his fierce dunk punctuated the highest-scoring game in Heat history and a gut-wrenching loss for Denver, 149-141.
James Johnson with the dagger dunk pic.twitter.com/YFKFTtDy1e— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) March 20, 2018
What do you want me to say? Denver didn’t roll over and quit. They fought hard to the end, staved off potential game-winning shots from the Heat at the end of regulation and again to end the first overtime period. The team didn’t run the ball through Jokic like I thought they would and both Jamal Murray and Will Barton struggled with their shots through most of regulation, but general offense wasn’t the problem.
Denver could not extend its lead when things were going well and could not draw up timely baskets or get that one needed stop to escape with the win against an Eastern Conference playoff team. No team fears trailing Denver, because they know they can make up the ground. Two teams fought desperately tonight, and Miami prevailed on their home court.
I can’t criticize the offensive effort level from the Nuggets. Sometimes effort isn’t enough. Other teams want to win too, and sometimes you have to beat them when they do. You either need to be smarter or more productive, and Denver has struggled to do that one too many times this year, which is why it looks like - for the second year in a row - Denver will come up just short in a race for the playoffs that they insist is not a must-win.
Spoiler alert: if you don’t define your goal as winning the race, you rarely obtain that elusive victory. Better luck next year, Nuggets.