A Little Duncan Robinson Can Go A Long Way
12:08 PM EDT on June 5, 2023
In Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Duncan Robinson played 17 minutes. In those minutes, the Miami Heat were outscored by six points, including a blitzing sequence by the Denver Nuggets at the end of the first quarter and into the second that erased Miami's early 11-point lead. Robinson, due to his prowess as a shooter and shortcomings as a defender, tends to be on the floor when runs happen on either side of the ball, and for most of Game 2, he was on the receiving end of a brutal run by the home team. Without Robinson's 17 minutes, though, the Heat are probably headed back to South Florida down 0-2, instead of in the enviable position of only needing to hold home-court advantage to win the title.
Really, Miami only needed one specific minute from Duncan Robinson, and it got exactly what it needed at the start of the fourth quarter. Though Miami looked good at times in the third, a 6-0 Nikola Jokic run to end that period pushed Denver's lead to 83-75. Against a different team than this magical, infuriating, borderline trolling Miami side, that might have been the stretch that put this game, and potentially the series, out of reach.
However, there was Duncan Robinson, quiet all game long on offense, the one place that he simply can't be quiet in if he is to get game time. As if realizing that in real time, he did what he has done at various times during these playoffs, and what various Miami role players have done to drive the Heat to three wins from an NBA title: shoot the absolute hell out of the basketball.
That was Robinson's first three, just 20 seconds into the fourth quarter, following a ruthless head fake that sent Jamal Murray flying by. The threat of Robinson's shooting is so large that any motion he makes with or without the ball suctions at least one defender in his direction. Case in point: After Jeff Green made two free throws to push Denver's lead back up to seven, Robinson hit one of his now-characteristic drives to the basket, as he has been doing throughout the playoffs when defenders key in on him only behind the arc, and finished through contact from Murray.
Though the sure-shot Robinson missed the free throw, the Heat drew a foul on the offensive rebound, giving Miami another shot to shrink the lead to one possession. That's exactly what happened seven seconds later, as Robinson got himself open and hit another huge three-pointer, this time with Green in his face. Just like that, in 50 seconds, it was Duncan Robinson eight, Denver two, and a game that had been teetering on the edge of respectability suddenly became a two-point game with just under 11 minutes to go.
Robinson would go one to add two more to his eventual tally of 10 fourth-quarter points with a tough finish through contact a minute later, thanks to some nifty two-man game action with Bam Adebayo, leading to a mean mug for the ages from the 29-year-old swingman. He earned it with that burst, even if it looked all a bit ridiculous:
Miami has its two stars, of course, and both Adebayo—playing excellent defense on Jokic all game, so much so that it was still impressive despite the two-time MVP scoring 41 points—and Jimmy Butler—playmaking on a bum ankle until he took over scoring in the fourth quarter—had their indispensable moments on Sunday night. The Heat have proven throughout the playoffs that they can't win if both of its star players perform poorly, but then again, isn't that true of every team in the NBA?
The other major factor for Miami, this team with so many undrafted players that the broadcast mentioning it has become a played-out meme, is that they need one or two of its role players to stand out. In Game 1, Max Strus and Caleb Martin, the latter the hero of the Eastern Conference Finals, stood out for bad reasons, shooting a combined 1-for-17 from the field. That didn't stop either of them on Sunday. Strus came out on fire in Game 2, scoring 12 points on four three-pointers as Miami built that aforementioned 11-point lead. Martin was pulled from the starting lineup due to illness, but still contributed 21 minutes of defense and one massive three-pointer late in the fourth to push a resurgent Heat lead to 12 with 3:39 to go:
The Heat would need every single one of those points to hang on in Game 2, especially as Denver leaned on its non-Serbian star late in the game. Seeing Jamal Murray take a three-pointer is a terrifying prospect at any point, but especially when he's on a streak of made baskets. (Thankfully for Miami, he missed the potential game-tying three at the buzzer.) Perhaps, though, seeing one of Miami's role players shoot a wide-open three for what felt like dozens of times in this game is just as terrifying.
As Jared Dubin pointed out, Miami has now made 48 percent or more of their threes six times in the 2023 postseason; they've won all six of those games. The Heat need someone like Robinson to step up and score when one of Butler or Adebayo sits. In this case, it was the former; when the latter sits, it brings on Cody Zeller, who will not be seeing any praise from me for his play this series to date. There's not enough firepower in a hobbled Butler and a sometimes weirdly hesitant Adebayo to beat Denver. To Adebayo's credit, though, the undersized center has used his quickness to get to his spots, and his playmaking when Jokic guards him was as helpful in turning the tide as the hot shooting.
So, that's how the formula shakes out for the Heat here: Play enough defense on the non-Jokic players to force the big Serbian to score, and then have enough shooting luck—Is it still luck at this point, given what Miami has done all postseason long?—to keep ekeing out wins, even in games that looked done and dusted. Sunday's win was Miami's seventh these playoffs after trailing by 10 or more points, a statistical anomaly that ties them with last year's Warriors and the first two years of the Big Three Heat for most in one postseason over the last 25 years.
To come back from double digits over and over again, a team needs to play incredible defense—the zone that everyone expected Denver to shred actually turned out to be key there in a 36-25 fourth quarter for Miami—and its players need to hit shot after shot after shot. Duncan Robinson did that for Miami on Sunday, and it could be his turn again as the series shifts to the 305 on Wednesday. The beautiful part of this Heat team, which somehow keeps winning and winning, is that it could also be anyone else on the roster that steps up and, for at least 48 minutes, or 17 minutes, or even 50 seconds, takes over to guide Miami to one more win on its quest for 16.