Bam Adebayo shouldered enormous two-way responsibility for the Miami Heat and helped deliver a series-changing upset in Game 2.
Bam Adebayo stood at the free-throw line at Ball Arena on Sunday night and, with 21,000 fans trying to rattle him and the Denver Nuggets mounting a last-chance comeback, brought the ball up from his right hip, took one dribble and calmly made the second of two foul shots to put the Miami Heat back up by five with 48.3 seconds remaining.
These were the last points the Heat scored and were just enough to deliver a 111-108 win in Game 2 to tie the NBA Finals, 1-1, before the series turns to Miami for Games 3 and 4. Adebayo deserves as much credit as anyone for the Heat’s surprising win.
His 21 points, nine rebounds and four assists in 40 minutes helped Miami hang with Denver’s top-rated offense, and his defense on Nikola Jokic is the bedrock of the Heat’s approach in this series. For the Heat to win the championship, they’ll need this type of performance from Adebayo three more times. Should he deliver, we will have witnessed something resembling a superstar leap.
Perhaps no player in the Finals has as much responsibility as Adebayo, who must command Miami’s offense enough in order to hang with the mighty Nuggets while also guarding the league’s most unsolvable player on the other end.
“We just can’t say enough of how difficult his responsibilities are in this series,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “To take arguably the toughest cover in the league, and then he has to shoulder a big offensive role for us, as well. And he has to play 40-plus minutes.”
Bam Adebayo was crucial to the Miami Heat comeback in the 4th quarter
Those foul shots, which punctuated a fourth-quarter takeover in a hostile environment — the stuff of superstars. Jamal Murray’s 3-pointer right before Adebayo’s free throws capped off an 11-2 Nuggets run to come back from 12 points down in the last three minutes. When Murray’s potential game-tying 3-pointer rimmed out in the final seconds, the Heat had officially outscored the Nuggets 36-25 to complete a 15-point comeback that changed the tenor of these NBA Finals.
According to NBA.com’s John Schumann, the Heat’s fourth quarter was the most efficient fourth quarter of the season. Miami scored 36 points on 19 possessions, shooting 69 percent in the process. Adebayo was in the middle of it all, facilitating the offense from the top of the nail — like Jokic-lite — as the Heat’s armada of shooters scrambled Denver’s defense with a bombardment of screens, back cuts, and open jumpers. Adebayo went 8 for 14 in the game and had three of his four assists in the pivotal fourth quarter.
After Adebayo scored 26 points on 13-of-25 shots in Game 1, the feeling in Denver’s locker room was that they could live with that. The priority was to drop their defenders deep to protect the rim and, if Adebayo cooked from his spot at the top of the paint, so be it. Adebayo happily took the bait in Game 1 but countered late in Game 2 by turning that space into a crow’s nest from where he could pick apart Denver’s defense.
“I feel like I’m one of the great passers in this league,” Adebayo said. “Just making plays down the stretch.”
Adebayo’s adversary is the best passer in the league. Jokic opened the series with a sublime performance, beating every coverage the Heat sent at him and finishing with 14 assists. He took five shots in the first three quarters, then shifted into scoring gear and finished with 27 points.
In Game 2, the Heat changed their defensive approach and prioritized taking away the cuts and passing windows that make Denver’s offense so elite. Miami’s defenders dropped to take away those passing lanes and had Adebayo guard Jokic one-on-one. Jokic responded by scoring 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting in the first quarter and a Finals-high 41 points on the night. But he also had more turnovers (five) than assists (four) and no teammate scored more than 18 points.
“Just trying to take away the cuts,” Adebayo said. “That’s a big part of the offense, their cuts, because he’s a great passer.”
Spoelstra pushed back on the notion that the Heat had chosen to make Jokic a scorer and take away his playmaking.
“That’s ridiculous — that’s the untrained eye that says something like that. This guy is an incredible player. Twice in two seasons, he’s been the best player on this planet. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, make him a scorer.’ That’s not how they play. They have so many different actions that just get you compromised.
“We have to focus on what we do. We try to do things the hard way, and he requires you to do many things the hard way. He has our full respect.”
That respect was evident by Spoelstra’s decision to make a lineup change uncharacteristically early in the series, swapping Caleb Martin for Kevin Love at power forward after one game. With Love on Aaron Gordon, the Heat had more size to crowd the paint.
Spoelstra’s “hard way” requires the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Adebayo to front the 6-foot-11, 284-pound Jokic in the post and absorb body blow after body blow as Jokic shoves and contorts his way to the rim.
Then Adebayo has to go down to the other end, set hard screens, play-make and finish with force instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.
Adebayo’s two-way impact is what gives the Heat a chance in this series. Like Kawhi Leonard in 2014, an ascension at the right time can swing a championship. On Monday, Adebayo’s odds for Finals MVP improved to a near-tie with Jimmy Butler.
“Bam’s been great. He’s been relentless,” Gabe Vincent said. “He’s got a tall task, obviously, matching up with Jokic, and we still rely on him to do a number of things on both sides of the ball, and he’s been stepping up.”
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