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South Beach wasn’t undefeated Wednesday night.
Amid health and safety protocols that forbid players from leaving their hotels on road trips, the allure of Miami didn’t faze the surging Nuggets as they stretched their winning streak to five. Denver’s 109-82 win over the Heat on Wednesday improved their record to 11-7, with a chance to wrap a perfect road trip at San Antonio on Friday.
With the game wavering early in the fourth quarter, Nuggets reserves Michael Porter Jr. and JaMychal Green stabilized the attack. The two snipers combined for 32 points, including five second-half 3-pointers. Both stretch forwards entered the game shooting above 46% from 3-point range.
“They sat in that zone the whole second half,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “… That was one of the reasons I got those guys in in that third quarter, just to give us more shooting, space the floor, to try to beat that zone.”
Their outside marksmanship eased the burden on Denver’s regular stalwarts. Nikola Jokic finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds for his 18th consecutive double-double. Jamal Murray struggled, going 4 for 11 on the night.
His backcourt mate, Gary Harris, continued his recent surge. Harris finished with seven points and seven assists, in addition to suffocating defense against Miami gunner Duncan Robinson.
But the Nuggets prevailed against a Heat team whose depth has been wrecked by COVID protocols and injuries. Last year’s NBA Finals participant was missing Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro.
“I don’t know if we’re as good as we played tonight,” Malone said. “… And I know they’re a hell of a lot better than they played because they’ve been decimated by injuries and COVID protocol.”
In a recipe that’s all too familiar to the Nuggets this season, they opened the third quarter lethargic and unable to put the game away. The offense was stagnant and forced, leading to numerous turnovers and Miami runouts. Paul Millsap ended Miami’s 9-0 run to start the third only after sinking a fortunate 3-pointer as the shot clock was dwindling.
With the rest of the starters momentarily playing down to the Heat’s level, Millsap’s energy was invaluable. Once the Nuggets went to their second unit, Green and Porter each hit some big baskets, yet there were still too many defensive lapses on the other end. With Jokic deferring instead of dominating, the Heat outscored the Nuggets 32-16 in the quarter and trailed just 74-65 heading into the fourth.
It didn’t help that Denver was without combo guard PJ Dozier, who left Monday’s game with a hamstring injury.
“I’m not a doctor,” Malone joked. “I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn last night. I stayed at a Four Seasons. … I would be shocked, without looking at any imaging, MRIs, I don’t think (he’s) going to be (out) one or two games. I think it’s going to be more than that.”
The Nuggets entered Wednesday with a 6-2 road record – a far-cry from their 4-5 record at Ball Arena. They were one of 10 Western Conference teams with a road record above .500.
Malone hypothesized a big factor was the lack of fans in most NBA arenas this season. But he had another working theory as well.
“I was thinking about this today, maybe because we’re in Miami,” Malone joked. “I think what also goes into is, when teams would go to certain cities, there are always pitfalls. Nightlife, whatever you want to call it, and now with the protocols being what they are, kind of like when we were in the “Bubble,” you go to a city, you go to a hotel, you have to stay in that hotel. You’re not going to a restaurant. You’re not going out to a club.
“You’re in your room, and you should be ready to play at a high level the following night in that particular city that you’re in.”
The Nuggets ran a clinic in the first half against the undermanned Heat. Their 58-33 first-half bludgeoning was equal parts unselfish offense and swarming defense.
Offensively, they had 16 assists, including five from Harris. Uncharacteristically, Jokic only had one first-half dime – a fullcourt heave to Harris that would’ve made any Broncos quarterback blush.
He finished the first half with a team-high 16 points and seven rebounds. Jokic softened up Miami’s interior, leading to a 40-8 advantage on points in the paint.
Miami, which shot 30 percent in the first half, hit a dry spell from outside that prevented any early runs. The Heat were just 5-of-26 from 3-point range in the first half.