NBA Finals: What do the Heat need to do to handle the Nuggets?

DENVER — After a heartbreaking last-second loss in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals — the fourth straight outing in which he’d scored fewer than 20 points, a night that saw him go just 4-of-16 from the floor — Bam Adebayo fielded a question about what he could do to help the Heat survive a Game 7 back in Boston. His reply was rather matter-of-fact.

“Make a f***ing shot,” he said.

He’d only make four more in Game 7, but Miami did survive, advancing to its second NBA Finals in the last four years and earning a date with the Western Conference champion Denver Nuggets. The script flipped for Adebayo and the Heat on Thursday night: He did make a f***ing shot. Thirteen of them, in fact — two off a career high — as he feasted on the short-roll, 4-on-3 attacks Denver’s drop coverage conceded (and that we mentioned in our series preview!) en route to 26 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists in 40 minutes.

“When Bam is making shots, I think he makes everybody's job a lot easier,” Heat star Jimmy Butler said after the game.

Not easy enough, though. While Adebayo finally started making shots, Miami’s biggest problem in Game 1, though — well, besides the 6-foot-11, 284-pound one with the shaved head and surgeon’s hands — is that nobody else could.

DENVER, CO - JUNE 1: Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra and star Jimmy Butler (22) work against the Denver Nuggets during the first quarter of the NBA Finals game 1 at Ball Arena in Denver on Thursday, June 1, 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and star Jimmy Butler have some things to figure for Game 2 Sunday night. (Photo by Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Adebayo’s teammates combined to shoot 15-of-53 (28.3%) through the first three quarters, and just 7-of-27 (25.9%) from 3-point range — a dismal team-wide deep freeze that proved fatal against a Nuggets side that boasts the postseason’s most explosive offense. That relentless Nikola Jokić-led attack, combined with Miami’s inability to consistently trade buckets, allowed Denver to build a lead that ballooned to 24 points late in the third quarter before settling at an 11-point final margin that makes Game 1 sound closer than it was.

“We had some good, clean looks from the 3-point line,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game.

A lot of them, actually. Sixteen of the Heat’s 39 long-range attempts in Game 1 came without a Denver defender within 6 feet of the shooter, according to Second Spectrum’s shot tracking. Miami made only five of those “wide-open” attempts, a 31.3% success rate — a stark reversal of fortune after drilling 45.6% of those clean looks through the first three rounds.

Max Strus, who entered the Finals shooting 35.9% from deep on nearly six attempts per game, went 0-of-9 from beyond the arc in Game 1. Duncan Robinson, who’d reclaimed his spot in Miami’s rotation in large part by knocking down 44.6% of his triples in the run through the East, went 1-for-5. Caleb Martin, who remained in the starting lineup after his stellar Eastern Conference finals, got only two 3-pointers up, but shot 1-for-7 from the field in 24 quiet minutes.

“The looks that we got, the shots that we missed, I think it’s kind of laughable," Martin said.

There wasn’t much for the Heat to laugh about on a night when they did manage to get to several parts of their game — limiting the Nuggets to six offensive rebounds and nine fast-break points, well below their postseason averages; winning the turnover battle; taking 17 more field-goal attempts than Denver — and still got drilled. Disposition is a choice, though, and you can certainly understand Martin, Spoelstra and the rest of the Heat deciding not to dwell on missing these kinds of looks as much in the aftermath of Game 1 when they could accentuate the positive of having generated them in the first place:

“It always kind of could look different,” Spoelstra said moments after Miami’s first Game 1 defeat of this postseason. “A few of these threes go down at the right time, a few of the layups right at the rim or the short ones go down at the right time, that also could change your perspective or tenor of how you think things are going.

“But we do need to do things better,” he added. “I think that part is clear.”

Some of those improvements must come on the defensive end, where the Nuggets carved up Miami’s coverages to the tune of 84 points on 55.9% shooting through the first three quarters — a scorching 121.7 offensive rating that tops even Denver’s league-leading postseason mark.

It’s well-trod ground by this point that there really aren’t any great answers for Jokić, the rare talent capable of dominating a game whether he’s taking three shots in a half or scoring 12 points in a quarter. Miami cycled through plenty of options on the two-time MVP in Game 1; none of them worked particularly well.

When Adebayo fronted Jokić in the post, the Nuggets drove right at it, taking advantage of the lack of rim protection behind the play to get layups. When Miami doubled Jokić on the block, he calmly pivoted away and threw darts to open shooters in the corners. When the Heat switched the Jokić-Jamal Murray pick-and-roll, he either took their smaller defenders to the weight room to draw fouls or sprayed the ball to open shooters. When they didn’t switch, he took the pocket pass and finished at the cup. When Bam dropped, Murray attacked the space, drew two to the ball and kicked it back out to his 47.5% 3-point-shooting center for a spot-up splash. It looked, throughout Game 1, like an unsolvable riddle.

If the Heat can’t stop Jokić — and again, at this point, it sure seems like nobody can — then they’ll at least need to do a better job of controlling what they can control. They’ve got to clean up the top-locking coverage that opened up back-cuts early and eliminate miscommunications that resulted in open jumpers. If they’re going to switch when Jokić is on the floor, they have to at all costs avoid the most damaging ones that put the Lilliputians in harm’s way, force help and give the big fella carte blanche to spread the love to his shooters.

And while the Heat did a good job of keeping Denver from running on the whole — the Nuggets got out in transition on 11% of their offensive possessions in Game 1, according to Cleaning the Glass, down from their postseason average of 15.1% entering the Finals — they’ve got to be more attentive in who they’re picking up as they’re running back. Against a team as big, physical and aggressive as Denver, crossmatches on the break augur near-certain doom:

“Whenever you miss and don't get back, the game gets out of hand kind of quickly,” said Butler … who, now that you mention it, we haven’t mentioned in a while, have we? That’s a pretty big problem in and of itself, isn’t it?

When Spoelstra told reporters after the game that Miami “had too many possessions where we didn't work it to get the possession on our terms,” it was hard not to immediately recall trips like these, where Butler — the Eastern Conference finals MVP, Miami’s leading scorer and assist man in these playoffs, the tip of the spear constantly slicing to the heart of opposing defenses — seemed a bit more tentative than you’d expect:

Spoelstra credited the Nuggets for leveraging their size advantage on the defensive end, “really protecting the paint and bringing a third defender” into the action to make Butler and the rest of the Heat’s drivers think twice about a foray into the lane. Even so, though, the lack of aggression was glaring. After averaging nearly 18 drives and 8.5 shots per game off those drives through the first three rounds of the postseason, Butler drove to the basket just eight times in Game 1, attempting only two shots and passing out six times — a leading factor in a Heat team that entered the championship round averaging 21 free-throw attempts per game logging a measly two freebies in Game 1, the lowest number of trips to the charity stripe of any postseason game in NBA history.

It often looked like Butler was penetrating with the primary intention of passing rather than looking for his own shot; when he did call his own number, he seemed to pull up a dribble or two too early, hoping to find the range on his jumper rather than continuing to force the issue into the paint, especially with Jokić in drop coverage. (As Seth Partnow of The Athletic notes, Jokić — who’s allowing opponents to shoot 61.3% against him at the rim this postseason, 15th out of 21 players to contest at least 50 up-close shots — only had to defend two shots at the basket in Game 1.)

Butler, like the rest of the Heat, frequently emphasizes the importance of playing the right way offensively — making the right reads, trusting the pass, giving your teammates opportunities to make the plays they’re paid to make, too. But after a Game 1 that saw him score a postseason-low 13 points on just 14 field-goal attempts, he allowed that he perhaps needed to take a more aggressive posture in Game 2.

“I've got to put pressure on the rim,” he said. “Me with no free throws, that was all on myself, nobody else. So we'll definitely correct that the next game, but only I can do that.”

While Denver’s collective size and activity complicates hunting, Butler does have some options to cycle through, from Michael Porter Jr. (who, to his credit, packed both Butler and Martin in space during a defensive performance that drew rave reviews from his teammates) to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to Murray. That last matchup, in particular, is one you’d imagine Miami might look to target and exploit more often in Game 2, given how brilliant Murray was in Game 1 and how much it would behoove the Heat to make his life as difficult as possible on defense with an eye toward sapping his legs on the other end.

“You've got to attack — and attack everybody, not just one individual,” Butler said. “I have to do a better job of creating the help, [drawing] one [or] two guys and getting to my shooters. Otherwise, finishing at the rim, making shots.”

In the cold light of day the morning after a Game 1 where the Heat did get some good things going — the baseline cuts and high-low connection between Adebayo and Butler, the emergence of Haywood Highsmith (18 points on 7-for-10 shooting, active defense on Murray) as a potential contributor in this matchup, Gabe Vincent and Kyle Lowry finding good looks against Denver’s drop — a glass-half-full type can envision a more forceful effort from Butler, combined with some regression to the mean from Miami’s shooters and a leveling of the playing field when it comes to the rest vs. rust/acclimation to elevation differential, and see the pathway to the Heat evening the series in Sunday’s Game 2. The more pessimistic view: The Nuggets shot 29.6% from deep, got almost nothing out of their bench and seemed like they barely needed to break a sweat in a commanding win.

Yes, Miami can play better; so can Denver, though. So whatever Spoelstra and his assistants spend their time in “the cave” cooking up, Butler, Adebayo and the rest of the Heat roster had better prepare themselves to withstand an even better version of the Nuggets than they saw Thursday.

“Scheme is not going to save us,” Spoelstra said. “It's going to be the toughness and resolve, collective resolve. That's us at our finest — when we rally around each other and commit to doing incredibly tough things.”

Nothing in this postseason has been tougher than beating the Nuggets in Denver; they’re now 9-0. Doing it will require the best effort the Heat have managed yet. And, in the words of their All-Star center, making some more f***ing shots sure wouldn’t hurt.