Greg Cote: Time to worry: Miami’s Game 1 loss to Denver, Jokic has Heat in fast trouble in NBA Finals

Tribune Content Agency

The ABC-TV coverage of the NBA Finals opener had one of those corny, token get-to-know features on the Denver Nuggets before Game 1 Thursday night, dating to the old ABA days. It’s what they do to introduce a franchise new to this national stage stuff. Likewise this was a coming-out party of sorts for superstar Nikola Jokic, whose two league MVP trophies did not mint his reputation or the credit due him as much as his first Finals could.

So America officially knows the Nuggets and Jokic now.

So do the Miami Heat.

The difference is, America gets to enjoy and appreciate what they are seeing.

The Heat and coach Erik Spoelstra have to figure out a way to stop what just ran them over. And fast.

Denver had its way at home Thursday night, 104-93, leaving Miami until Sunday’s Game2 back in Colorado to figure out what they obviously had not leading into this championship series.

One of the keys to Miami’s upset chances — Bam Adebayo rising up — happened, and yet still the Heat got clobbered. Adebayo had 26 points but Jimmy BUtler whispered with only 13.

Was it the altitude?No, it was the Nuggets. And Miami shooting only 40.6 percent including 13-for-39on 3’s.

Denver got 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds from Jokic, the triple-double machine, and 26 from Jamaal Murray.

Miami emphasized negating Jokic early; he took only three shots in the first half. Didn’t work.

“You give him that kind of attention, he’s going to pick you apart,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone of Jokic.

Spoelstra had acknowledged of Jokic, “He’s very unique. He doesn’t really have any noticeable weaknesses.”

None were evident Thursday night.

JImmy Butler had said making Jokic uncomfortable would take “guarding him as a team with all five guys. He does everything so well. We can’t have defensive lapses. We’re going to have to get after it. He’s a major key, as DJ Khaled would say, and we’re going to have to lock in.”

(Bonus points to Butler for sampling a Miami rapper in a pregame interview. But it didn’t seem even five guys was enough).

The Nuggets are bigger than Miami all over the court. They have a second star in Murray, quality role players … and Jokic.

Denver was a minus-380 betting favorite to Miami’s plus-310 going in. Not only is the Heat the first No. 8 seed to reach the Finals since 1999 and trying to be the lowest seed ever to win it all, Miami also is the first team since the 1959 Minneapolis Lakers to reach the Finals after being outscored in the regular season.

That underdog aspect played out in Game 1 as the No. 1-seed Nuggets’ favored status was underlined.

With South Florida this marks only the 10th time in 74 years of NBA/NHL coexistence that one city or region has had a team in each sport’s championship finals. But there’s a Double-Dip Jinx at work. The twice-blessed city is 0-for-9 in winning both, and only 5-13 in winning either.

Can the Heat and Florida Panthers buck the odds despite both being betting underdogs?

The NHL is assured a first-time Stanley Cup winner in either Florida or Vegas. If Denver wins the NBA title, as the odds (and Game 1) suggest, the two leagues will simultaneously crown a first-time champ for only the sixth time in those 74 shared seasons. The other times were in 2019 (Toronto Raptors and St. Louis Blues), 2006, 1999, 1991 and 1989.

It must be the Finals, because the mayors of the competing cities have a hokey bet going. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez challenged Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who accepted. The bet is Cuban croquetas vs. Colorado bison steaks, and the losing mayor wears the other team’s jersey.

(Quick aside: This is a blasphemous opinion to have in Miami, but croquetas are overrated. Suarez has the better end of this better, if not the better odds of winning it, alas.)

Mayor Hancock may be Googling what a croqueta is, based on Game 1.

We do not write off the Heat’s chances.

Even as Game 1 was an ominous harbinger.

Even as in NBA history 75.4 percent of opening-game winners go on to win a seven-game playoff series.

We have seenthis Heat team prove others wrong too much.

Beating mighty Milwaukee, then the Knicks, then rival Boston — all as underdogs.

This feels different, though.

Spoelstra said the national media has “slept on Denver” and added, “In some ways it’s a mirror-image series, not in terms of style, but teams that probably have been overlooked, underestimated, built a chip on their shoulder over that. It’s lined up to be a great competition.”

It still might be.

Spoelstra, the best coach in the NBA, has a couple of days to figure out what went wrong Thursday, and how to make it right.