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Heat, on the brink of elimination, may be running out of playoff magic

Miami has kept finding ways to win on their improbable run from the play-in tournament to the NBA Finals. The question is if they can do it again.

MIAMI — Get this series back to the 305.

That’s what Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra repeated fervently after a loss to the Denver Nuggets on Friday night left them once again facing elimination.

The question now is if the Heat have enough left in the tank to overcome it.

The team whose improbable run from the play-in tournament to the NBA Finals has kept finding ways to win. No matter the opponent, no matter the adversity, finding a way when their backs were against the wall has been part of the Heat’s identity in these playoffs.

But Miami seems to have met an opponent in Denver that is too good and too deep. The eighth-seeded Heat fell into a 3-1 hole after their 108-95 loss in Game 4 as the series heads back to Denver.

“I told the guys, ’Feel whatever you want to feel tonight. That’s fine. You probably shouldn’t sleep any tonight any amount of time,'” Spoelstra said. “We have an incredibly competitive group. We’ve done everything the hard way, and that’s the way it’s going to have to be done right now, again. And all we’re going to focus on is getting this thing back to the 305. Get this thing back to Miami, and things can shift very quickly.”

Minutes away from missing the playoffs entirely in a play-in game, forced to win a Game 7 in Boston to avoid the biggest collapse in NBA postseason history, the Heat will now have to become the second team to come back from 3-1 down in the NBA Finals. The first, of course, was in 2016, when the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers stunned the Golden State Warriors to capture win it all.

Credit: AP
Miami Heat players sit on the bench as the team falls behind the Denver Nuggets during the second half of Game 4 of the basketball NBA Finals, Friday, June 9, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Bam Adebayo said many Heat players were “(ticked) off” in the locker room Friday. Jimmy Butler added that he will demand a “no-doubt” mentality from teammates as they try to extend the series.

“We'll go into Monday and do what we said we were going to do this entire time: Win," Butler said. “We have to. We have no other choice. Otherwise we did all this for no reason.”

The Heat couldn’t capitalize on quiet nights from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, by their standards. Outside of a 2-0 lead in the game’s opening minute, Miami trailed the entire contest, including by as many as 13 in the third quarter of what became the team’s fourth straight home loss.

Butler led the Heat with 25 points. Adebayo had 20. The Heat also got good minutes from Kevin Love, who finished with 12 points, including a pair of back-to-back 3-pointers in the third that kept the game close.

But Denver has neutralized many of Miami’s outside threats. Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson combined for only 25 points. And the Heat made eight of just 25 attempts from deep -- their fewest this series.

“They’re helping a little bit less on drives it seems, scrambling,” said Robinson, who had 12 points and two 3-pointers. “Give some credit to them. For us, it’s going to be about being detailed and running good offense, which we’re capable of doing.”

Credit: AP
Miami Heat forward Kevin Love (42) defends Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) during the second half of Game 4 of the basketball NBA Finals, Friday, June 9, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The Heat grabbed home-court advantage in the series by rallying from down 15 to beat the Nuggets on their home floor in Game 2, despite Denver being heavy favorites. Then the Nuggets took it back in a 109-94 win in Game 3.

Miami has fought back repeatedly during its run, coming from down 15 to beat the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in Game 4 of the opening round of the playoffs, then from down 16 to win the clinching Game 5. The Heat erased a 13-point deficit, then a 12-point hole to defeat the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, which they won after being forced to a Game 7 after taking a 3-0 lead.

Perhaps the extra games in that series left the Heat worn down for the finals. They haven’t looked like the same team from those previous rounds as this series went to Miami, and they’ll head back to Colorado looking to show they’re not done yet.

“Our whole season hasn’t been easy,” Adebayo said. “We won’t quit.”

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