DENVER – Plenty can be said about winning in the margins, and for the Miami Heat that certainly has been a considerable element in this unexpected run to the NBA Finals.
But what mostly has been doing the talking has been the play of Jimmy Butler.
And then Butler was muted in Thursday night’s 104-93 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the opener of the best-of-seven series that continues with Sunday’s Game 2 at Ball Arena.
Instead of Butler bravado, bluster, bombast, the type of fire so inspirational in the run past the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics in the first three rounds, there were 13 points, not a single free-throw attempt, with the Heat being outscored by 17 when he was on the floor.
If there can be three-alarm concern in a series opener, this was it, in the wake of Butler’s lowest-scoring game this postseason.
“Maybe,” Butler said, “I have to be a little bit more aggressive. I’ve got to put pressure on the rim. Me with no free throws, that was all on myself, nobody else. So we’ll definitely correct that the next game. But only I can do that.”
There are no maybes here. If Butler did not take himself out of the game with his play, then the Nuggets did.
It was not coincidence that the Nuggets coerced center Bam Adebayo into a career-high 25 shots, more than a quarter of the Heat’s attempts.
If the ball is not in Butler’s hands, then the Nuggets are in a better place.
Denver knows it; Butler has to recognize as much, even after rounding out Thursday night’s stat line with seven rebounds and seven assists.
Yes, the Heat shot 39 3-pointers, nearly half their overall attempts. But that is written into the game plan. That is what an undersized team does.
But if the rest of the attack is not in attack mode, Erik Spoelstra’s team becomes far simpler to defend.
In this case, the simplicity could not have been more stark in the stat lines. The Heat finished 2 of 2 from the foul line. No team had taken as few free throws in a playoff game.
“We shot a lot of jump shots,” Butler said, “myself probably leading that pack, instead of putting pressure on the rim, getting layups, getting to the free-throw line.”
Because of that, not a single Nuggets player had more than two fouls. Denver center Nikola Jokic, hardly a master of defensive deterrence, had only one, allowing the freedom to play as long and as unencumbered as needed on a night he closed with 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds.
Gaudy numbers, but the type of numbers, or at least something close, the Heat also need from Butler. Such is the burden on the best in June.
Consider: The Nuggets allowed 26 points to Adebayo, 19 to Gabe Vincent, 18 to Haywood Highsmith, and won going away, their lead cresting at 24.
While Butler mentioned a “bum ankle” during Wednesday’s media day, those closest to him insist it has not been a particular concern since he sat out the second game of the Knicks series with that sprained right ankle.
But the lift, the explosion has not always been there in recent games. A week ago there was a concerning 14-point performance in a loss to the Celtics. Monday, he got to the line for only two free throws in the clinching victory in Boston.
The trend is not necessarily encouraging.
After a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals, the Nuggets were rested and relaxed in moving to this 1-0 series lead.
After going to the limit against the Celtics in the East finals, the Heat had the look of a team running on fumes on Thursday night.
That, Butler acknowledged, can’t happen again.
Mile-high mustering is not the easiest of challenges. But we’re about to see Sunday whether Butler again will be fuming … or is simply running on fumes.
“I have to do a better job of creating the help, one, two guys, and getting to my shooter, otherwise finishing at the rim, making shots,” Butler said of drawing greater defensive attention.
“We’ve got to attack the rim a lot more, myself included.”