The Miami Heat beat the shorthanded Denver Nuggets 125-105 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, Florida, on Saturday.
Denver, which was without three starters, held a one-point lead at halftime, but the Heat took over the game with a 38-22 scoring advantage in the third quarter, thanks largely to the play of the All-Star tandem of Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
The game was the first for both teams since the resumption of the 2019-20 NBA regular season inside the NBA bubble.
Miami improved to 42-24 with the win and maintained the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, while Denver fell to 43-23 and remained in third in the West.
Jimmy Butler, G, MIA: 6/11 FG, 22 PTS, 7 AST, 4 REB, 3 STL
Bam Adebayo, C, MIA: 7/12 FG, 22 PTS, 9 REB, 6 AST
Kelly Olynyk, C, MIA: 8/11 FG, 20 PTS, 5 REB, 3 AST
Nikola Jokic, C, DEN: 7/16 FG, 19 PTS, 7 REB, 6 AST
Jerami Grant, F, DEN: 7/14 FG, 19 PTS, 2 REB
Butler Dominates as Heat's Go-To Guy
Despite the fact that Saturday marked the first time he was playing in a game that counted in more than four months, Butler didn't miss a step.
He tied for the team lead with 22 points and contributed in essentially all areas. Butler stood out as a ball distributor as well, putting his teammates in positions to succeed and recording a team-high seven assists.
Butler didn't attempt a single shot from beyond the arc and did the bulk of his damage at the rim and at the free-throw line.
He threw down an emphatic dunk early in the third quarter while the Heat were trailing, and it seemed to energize the team:
Butler then put an exclamation point on the quarter with a buzzer-beating layup:
Even when Butler wasn't making buckets on the floor, he was doing damage at the charity stripe by making 10 of his 11 attempts.
Keith Smith of Yahoo Sports felt the Heat appeared to be in midseason form with how well they moved the ball and worked together Saturday:
Butler was at the center of it all and showed why he and the Heat could be a major threat in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
If Miami continues to be as efficient offensively as it was Saturday (55.6 percent from the field), it will be a tough out.
Absence of Top Guards Costs Nuggets
The Nuggets were outclassed by the Heat during the second half of Saturday's game, and the absence of three key starters likely had plenty to do with it.
The entire starting backcourt of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton was out Saturday, which forced Monte Morris and Torrey Craig to play the bulk of the minutes at guard.
It didn't matter much in the first half since the Nuggets' size advantage helped them build a lead, but the Denver backcourt couldn't handle the pressure applied by Miami's strong defense in the second half.
The Heat forced turnovers regularly in the third and fourth quarters by drawing charges and simply taking the basketball away:
Overall, the Nuggets turned the ball over 19 times to Miami's 15. Denver also shot just 42.9 percent from the field and 22.9 percent from three, which was likely a direct result of the absences of Murray, Harris and Barton.
The Nuggets are still a dangerous team at full strength and could still be a factor in the Western Conference if they get healthy by playoff time.
As would be the case with essentially any team in the league, though, the Nuggets couldn't overcome being without three of their five best players.
The Heat will have a tough challenge on their hands in their next game when they face the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors on Monday.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets will look to bounce back Monday against the Oklahoma City Thunder.