Finals Fever: Who’s taking the lead?

What to look for as the Heat and Nuggets go to South Beach tied 1-1.

Photo of Miamt Heat forward Jimmy Butler shooting over Nuggets guard Christian Braun

After many initially thought the No. 1-seeded Denver Nuggets would make easy work of the No. 8-seeded Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, the Heat managed to steal a game in high altitude, bringing a tied series back to Miami.

Coming into Game 2 as 8-point underdogs, the Heat’s road victory came as a surprise to many, especially when they were down by 15 at one point, and the Nuggets had yet to lose a home game since before the playoffs. Where does the credit go? Miami’s undrafted players rising to the occasion and a collective masterclass from the 3-point arc.

Miami shot an impressive 48.6% from three in Game 2, hitting 17 threes, with 11 of them coming from their undrafted players. Gabe Vincent once again showcased his confident shooting stroke with 23 points on 67% shooting, while Max Strus bounced back from a scoreless Game 1 with 14 points — 12 of those points off four threes in the first quarter alone. Duncan Robinson also added two threes of his own, scoring all 10 of his points in the fourth quarter. Oh, did I mention these guys are undrafted?

While Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo contributed their expected fair share of 21 points each, it was Nikola Jokic who led all scorers after exploding for 41 points on 16-for-28 shooting. However, Jokic also tallied a playoff-low four assists, and his scoring outburst continues a trend of three straight losses for Denver when he scores more than 40 points. Is there then something to be said about limiting Jokic’s role as a playmaker and letting him be more of a scorer? Honestly, no, and Heat coach Erik Spolestra would agree.

What the Heat managed to do differently, however, was utilize their zone defense to limit the Jokic-Jamal Murray two-man game that’s been giving defenses problems all playoffs. By crowding the middle of the halfcourt and refusing Jokic to get the ball there, the Heat are forcing the Nuggets to go to their wing players to generate more offense. On Sunday, Miami got what it wanted, with the other three Nuggets starters combining for only 23 points on 8-for-19 shooting. Going into South Beach on Wednesday night, here are what the Nuggets have to do differently to take a game back on the road:

Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope must wake up

When Miami plays a zone defense to limit Jokic and Murray’s offensive tandem, the other guys on the floor must step up. On Sunday, however, Porter and Caldwell-Pope did the exact opposite. Porter scored only five points in 26 minutes, while Caldwell-Pope scored six points in 36 minutes. Furthermore, both starters had the lowest plus-minus on the Nuggets with Porter being -15 and Caldwell-Pope being -14. Even after terrible games by two of their starters, the Nuggets did only lose by three, so if Porter and Caldwell-Pope can get to their spots, shoot with confidence and hit their shots like usual on Wednesday, the Nuggets should be in good shape (Caldwell-Pope also fouled on two 3-point attempts allowing six free points, so he must be smarter on defense, too).

Communicate on pick and rolls

The Heat were able to tear apart the Nuggets all game on pick and rolls involving two shooters where the pick man would come set the screen and then slip to the corner often unguarded for an uncontested three. On one occasion in the fourth quarter, Vincent set a screen for Robinson to cut, then both Nuggets players followed Robinson to the paint, leaving Vincent open for a three he then drained. The following possession, they ran the same exact play, but the Nuggets miscommunicated on the switch again and left Robinson open on a cut to the basket, where he got the ball and laid it in. The Nuggets have to talk better amongst themselves and be tighter on switches if they don’t want a repeat of Game 2 on Wednesday.

On the other hand, and aside from their zone defense limiting the Jokic-Murray two-man game, here are what the Heat will have to do to defend home court and go up in this series:

Take care of the ball and get back on defense

The Heat fell behind by a considerable amount in the second quarter due to careless turnovers and poor shot selection, leading to a ton of transition points for the Nuggets. When it was all said and done, the Nuggets outscored the Heat on transition points by 18 to five. Miami needs to slow down their offense more and be smarter with the ball if it wants a chance at winning this series. As confident and as good as their shooters are, taking deep threes with 16 or more seconds on the shot clock won’t cut it. And when Denver does go on the fastbreak, Miami fans better pray their players are giving it their all to run back on defense.

Have Jimmy Butler stay aggressive on both ends of the court

Jimmy Butler is talented enough where everyone in the arena knows he is going to get his points regardless. However, his impact on defense may be more important going forward. The Heat turned to Butler to face-guard Murray throughout the game, which effectively impacted Murray’s typical offensive output, as the guard scored only 18 points on 15 shots (with many of those points coming from fastbreaks). Using Butler’s larger frame and tenacity on Murray is something the Heat have to continue to limit Denver’s offense. On the other end of the ball, Butler must stay aggressive inside the -3-point line, getting to his mid-range spots and drawing more fouls. Butler didn’t shoot a single free throw in Game 1 but made all five of his attempts in Game 2, so he has to keep putting his head down and get to the charity stripe.

Prediction: Denver makes the correct adjustments and gets big games from its role players, wins 115-108