MIAMI — Through three rounds of these NBA playoffs, the Heat was an unstoppable juggernaut in Game 3, dismantling the Bucks by 22, the Knicks by 19 and the Celtics by 26 in the third game of each of those series.
But none of those teams had Nikola Jokic.
And against Denver’s triple-double machine, the Heat’s Game 3 mastery ended with a thud in the NBA Finals on Wednesday night at Kaseya Center.
Denver led the entire second half, often comfortably, and beat Miami 109-94, to take back homecourt advantage and seize a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series.
Game 4 is Friday in Miami, at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.
The Heat did little right, beyond keeping turnovers down. The Heat shot just 37 percent from the field and 31.4 percent on three-pointers (11 for 35), was crushed on the boards (58-33) and had no answers for Nuggets stars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, who both had triple doubles.
Jokic had 32 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists – his 10th triple double of these playoffs. In NBA playoff history, only five times has a player had at least 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists; Jokic has done it three of those five times. Jokic is the first to achieve those numbers in a Finals game.
Murray was exemplary, too, with 34 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds. He got his triple double with a rebound in the final seconds.
And both were supremely efficient: Jokic shot 12 for 21, Murray 12 for 22.
Unlike the Celtics’ All Star tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Jokic and Murray are a more collaborative duo, seemingly making each other better. The Heat struggled with two-man actions involving those two Nuggets stars.
Both had their fingerprints all over a third quarter in which the Nuggets outscored the Heat 29 to 20 to take an 82-68 lead into the fourth.
Jokic had 12 points, five rebounds and two assists in that third quarter, while Murray had a basket, four assists, three rebounds and a steal.
In that third quarter, Miami shot 40 percent in that third and was pounded on the boards, 16 to 3.
Denver then pushed its lead to 22 with an 11-0 run early in the fourth.
Jimmy Butler was very aggressive looking for his offense, finishing 11 for 24 from the field on a 28-point night. He missed 10 of his 16 first-half shots; several of the misses came in the basket area, where Butler seldom missed early in the playoffs.
Butler averaged 32 points on 55 percent shooting in the Heat’s first nine playoff games. He averaged 23 points on 41 percent shooting in his next 10, entering Game 3.
When the Heat put a defender other than Aaron Gordon on him, Butler often looked for his shot. But he’s now 24 for 55 from the field in the series.
Bam Adebayo delivered a spirited effort early, with 13 points and 10 rebounds. He had two points and no rebounds in that decisive third quarter before coming to life a bit in the fourth. Adebayo closed with 22 points (on just 7 for 21 shooting) and 17 rebounds.
Denver’s superior size was a factor, particularly during the Nuggets’ dominant third quarter. The Nuggets had more offensive rebounds in the third (four, leading to six second-chance points) than Miami had total rebounds in the quarter (three).
The Heat has now lost three consecutive home playoff games.
Miami, which has taken good care of the ball most of these playoffs, committed just one turnover in the first half and four for the game. But there wasn’t enough firepower to keep up with Jokic and Murray.
After 19- and 23-point games in the first two games, Gabe Vincent battled foul trouble and scored seven points on 2 for 10 shooting.
Max Strus managed only three points on 1 for 7 shooting.
Duncan Robinson, who ignited the Heat with 10 points early in the fourth of Game 2, took only two shots through 45 minutes before hitting two threes late.
The Heat was outscored by 10 in Kevin Love’s 16 minutes, after Love was a plus 18 in Game 2.
Jokic and Murray didn’t need a ton of offensive support, but they got some from Christian Braun (15 points) and Aaron Gordon, who attacked the rim when guarded by smaller defenders and finished with 11 points and 9 boards.
The Heat missed eight shots in a row at one point in the first quarter but nevertheless went to the second tied at 24, thanks largely to 10 from Butler and the Nuggets shooting 2 for 11 outside the paint.
Caleb Martin ignited the Heat early in the second with eight points in a minute – two more points than he had scored in the first two games of the series combined.
But Denver then unleashed an 8-0 run and eventually rode the greatness of Jokic and Murray to go to the half ahead 53-48.
Jokic had 14 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists before intermission — thresholds collectively reached only twice before in the first half of Finals games over the past 25 years. Murray, meantime, had 20 points on 8 for 13 shooting in the first half.
The Nuggets capitalized on 39 percent Heat shooting in the first half (including 6 for 16 from Butler) and foul trouble that limited Vincent to 13 minutes.
The third quarter was an unmitigated disaster, beginning with a 6-0 Denver run and featuring two turnovers from Butler, including one that was taken by Christian Braun for a dunk that put the Nuggets up 19.
Jokic, who often sits to start the fourth quarter, remained in the game and blocked a Kyle Lowry shot to start the quarter.
An 11-0 Denver run, featuring five points from Brown, stretched Denver’s margin to 21. The Heat followed with a 7-0 run to close to within 14, but Murray ended that with a jumper.
Erik Spoelstra emptied his bench and the Heat made a run with four backups, closing to within 103-94. But Adebayo, the only starter on the court, then missed a jumper with 1:15 left.
Udonis Haslem, retiring after this season at age 42, played the final 29 seconds, becoming the oldest player to appear in an NBA Finals.