Kobe and Shaq. Lebron and Wade. Jordan and Pippen.
All three are historically great duos in the NBA, especially when it comes to playoff success. None of these duos, however, have ever had both players record a 30-point triple-double in the same game. In fact, no duo in the history of the NBA had ever accomplished that in both the regular season and playoffs … until Wednesday.
Denver’s Batman and Robin — Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray — made history Wednesday night in a dominant 15-point road victory in Miami to go up 2-1 in the Finals. The lethal duo combined for 66 points, 31 rebounds and 20 assists in what Nuggets coach Mike Malone deemed “their greatest performance as a duo in their seven years together.”
The pair ran pick and roll after pick and roll, which the Heat couldn’t seem to stop all game. Try to go over the screen? Murray simply beats Jimmy Butler with speed and it becomes him and Jokic vs. Bam Adebayo. Switch on the pick? Jokic simply calls for the ball in the post and makes easy work of Butler. Go under the screen? Murray gets all the space he needs to drill a shot. Denver quickly found the obvious out; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
For Miami, it simply couldn’t make a basket on Wednesday. The Heat shot 37% from the field – the worst they’ve shot this entire playoffs. Denver didn’t just take advantage of Miami’s shooting struggles, but the Nuggets also utilized their size advantage to dominate in the paint. The Nuggets outscored the Heat 60-34 in paint points and outrebounded them 58-33.
Going forward in the series, the Heat honestly have a lot to worry about. They are outsized. They are getting beaten on effort. Butler isn’t as athletic since his ankle injury, and it’s showing on defense. A possible Tyler Herro return could help spark some new life in Miami, but we have to assume he’ll be unavailable for the remainder of the series.
So, what now for the Miami Heat? At this point, it’s become really hard to find ways they can beat the Nuggets in a seven-game series, but the Heat are no strangers to defying the odds. It’s easy to say the Heat simply need to hustle more on defense and just hit their shots, but there’s more to it. Although we can expect better shooting and more effort on Friday, here are the more specific adjustments Miami should focus on making:
Help out on defense and use more two big man sets
The Nuggets didn’t just use their size as an advantage, but rather abused it to manhandle the Heat in the paint on both ends of the floor. Multiple times throughout the game you’d have Jokic, Aaron Gordon or Jeff Green put their heads down and barrel their way to the hoop, easily getting through Miami defenders in isolation and making layups or drawing fouls. The Heat won’t stand a chance if they don’t send more help defense on these isolations. Whether it be from the center or wing defenders, they simply can’t keep having their small defenders outmuscled. If I’m Miami, I’ll let Denver beat us from the 3-point arc, especially considering they made only five threes on 27% shooting on Wednesday.
Aside from bringing more help in the paint on isolation drives, the Heat should consider having more help in the paint at all times by having two big men on the floor more often. As talented as Adebayo is as a defender, Jokic is simply too large and offensively crafty to be contained by an individual defender. More minutes for Kevin Love and Cody Zeller along with Adebayo would cause more traffic in the paint, limiting Jokic’s post scoring and passing towards backdoor cutters, and pressuring Denver to focus more on their guard and wing play. Going into Friday’s game, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more zone defense with two bigs.
Let Denver’s role players beat you and have your own generate a spark
As dominant as they are, Jokic and Murray can’t win a game by themselves. The game stayed close in the first half as the duo were dominating, but it finally began to break open in the third quarter, when Gordon and Christian Braun stepped up offensively. As the Heat, you can live with second-half outbursts by Gordon and Braun, but you can’t let up another pair of dominant performances from Murray and Jokic.
Nuggets starters that aren’t named Jokic or Murray combined for only six points in the first half and, yet again, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope struggled with only one made field goal each all game. Similarly from my previous piece of advice, the Heat might as well put more bodies on Jokic and Murray and let Denver’s other pieces be the factors. Put the spotlight on the role players and test them.
On the other side of the ball, the Heat need people to step up. Butler and Adebayo are going to get their 20+ points, but the Heat have zero chance of winning if they don’t get a spark off the bench or another starter. We’ve seen short scoring outbursts from Max Strus, Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson, but one of the three needs to be hitting shots all game for this Heat team to win. I surely hope watching Christian Braun explode for 15 points on 7-for-8 shooting is the right motivation needed for these Heat snipers.
Bam must turn into the Hulk on offense
This one is simple and to the point. Bam Adebayo, stop shooting jump shots and get physical at the rim. As good as Jokic is, too often he fouls Adebayo when he’s trying to block him at the hoop. Luckily for the Serbian, Adebayo doesn’t use his combination of size and speed nearly enough to drive to the basket and go up with it. Adebayo has to turn on attack mode and go at Jokic’s chest much more frequently. Trust your physicality and athletic ability to make layups, and if not, get Jokic into foul trouble. Basically, go beast mode.
The Nuggets are already in really great shape after making the right adjustments following the Game 2 loss. However, there are still a couple small adjustments that Denver needs to implement to make sure they don’t fumble this series away.
Shoot more threes but actually make them
As mentioned earlier, the Nuggets only made five threes out of 18 in Game 2. To be honest, the fact the Nuggets won after that performance from three is pretty shocking. Shocking enough that it probably won’t happen again if they repeat it. Porter Jr. and Caldwell-Pope need to regain their shooting strokes back to carry the load off of Jokic and Murray. The team as a whole also needs to be prepared to shoot and make more threes. The Heat will start to find an answer for their interior defense that will more than likely leave more shooters open, and the Nuggets have to be ready to capitalize.
Make smart decisions on both ends of the floor
The Nuggets also managed to come away with a win despite turning the ball over ten more times than the Heat, losing the turnover battle 14 to four. The Nuggets obviously must be smarter with the ball, but that doesn’t just mean making smart passes and handling the ball well. It also means being smarter on defense and knowing when to make the extra leap, the extra effort or the extra swipe at the ball to generate a turnover. Letting the Heat get away with four turnovers is not acceptable for a team who wants to win a championship. The Nuggets must be smart and aggressive at the same time if they want the edge on Friday.
Consider rotation changes
There was one point in Wednesday’s game where 6-foot-10 Michael Porter Jr. lost a jump ball to Gabe Vincent. Vincent’s height you may ask? 6-foot-3. It was at that point that I knew I had to say something about Porter Jr. The talent is there, but the effort is simply not. Both Porter Jr. and Caldwell-Pope are struggling heavily this series, while Green and Braun have shown flashes of promise on both ends of the floor, but more importantly, in how much they want to win. I’m not suggesting that Porter Jr. and Caldwell-Pope should be benched, because I do believe they will find their rhythm once again, but I do think Mike Malone should consider lowering their minutes and giving more time to Braun and Green. It’s also a simple eye test for me. Braun and Green just want it more.
Prediction: Miami’s bench shooters shine and interior defense improves greatly. Denver falls behind early, but receives much needed offense from Murray and Gordon in the second half. Denver wins 123-118 in OT.