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Thursday, June 08, 2023

Jokic Leads the Way as Nuggets Dominate Heat, Reclaim Homecourt Advantage

Nikola Jokic authored one of the most dominant all-around performances in NBA Finals history--32 points, 21 rebounds, and 10 assists--as the Denver Nuggets led for the entire second half en route to winning 109-94 to take a 2-1 series lead. Jokic posted the first 30-20-10 stat line in NBA Finals history. Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the only other players to post a 30-20-10 stat line in a playoff game, accomplishing the feat one time each. Jamal Murray had an outstanding game as well, scoring a game-high 34 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and tying Jokic for game-high honors with 10 assists. Jokic and Murray became the first teammates in NBA history--including regular season, playoff, and Finals games--to each have a 30-10-10 stat line in the same game. Jokic played 44 minutes and Murray played 45 minutes; their ability to be highly productive and efficient with little rest distinguishes them from so many players who "load manage" their way through games and entire seasons. Christian Braun scored 15 points on 7-8 field goal shooting in 19 minutes off of the bench, and Aaron Gordon contributed 11 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists.

Anyone who stubbornly clings to the demonstrably false belief that "pace and space" and "range shooting" are the most important factors for building a championship team should note that in this game the Nuggets outscored the Heat 60-34 in the paint, outrebounded the Heat 58-33, and won by 15 points despite shooting just 5-18 (.278) from three point range. Jokic is a basketball artist with his footwork, fine-tuned passing, and shooting, but he is also physically overpowering--and he led the way as the Nuggets physically overpowered the Heat. Size matters in the NBA--a point that I have repeatedly made for the past two decades, and a point that continues to be true. In game two, the Nuggets missed many defensive assignments, and they did not fully exploit their size advantage, but in game three the Nuggets held the Heat to 34-92 field goal shooting (.370), including 11-35 (.314) from three point range.

Jimmy Butler led the Heat with 28 points on 11-24 field goal shooting. He had four assists and two rebounds. Butler played well, but he was the third best player on the court behind Jokic and Murray. Bam Adebayo had 22 points and a team-high 17 rebounds, but he shot just 7-21 from the field.  

Jokic set a dominant tone early, scoring 10 points and grabbing seven rebounds in the first quarter. The score was tied 24-24 after the first 12 minutes, and the Nuggets only led 53-48 at halftime despite enjoying significant advantages in field goal percentage (.477 to .391) and rebounding (28-21). The Heat stayed close with nearly perfect ballhandling, committing just one first half turnover while the Nuggets had five first half turnovers (not a terrible number, but those extra possessions helped the Heat to stay within striking distance). 

The Nuggets broke the game open in the third quarter as Jokic refuted the ridiculous notion that the Nuggets are not at their best when he is a prolific scorer. Jokic scored 12 points on 5-6 field goal shooting to help the Nuggets outscore the Heat 29-20, including 18-4 in the paint. The Nuggets outrebounded the Heat 17-3 as Jokic alone doubled the Heat's rebounding total; the Nuggets looked like the big brother dominating the little brother in a backyard game. 

The Nuggets had some fourth quarter lapses, but the Heat never cut the margin to less than nine points.

After game two, many media members promoted the false narrative that the Nuggets lost because Jokic scored more than 40 points while "only" having four assists. The reality is that the Nuggets have a historically great offense that has been remarkably consistent and effective during the regular season, the playoffs, and the first three games of the NBA Finals: the Nuggets scored 104 points on .506 field goal shooting in their game one win, they scored 108 points on .520 field goal shooting in their game two loss, and they scored 109 points on .512 field goal shooting in their game three win. The difference between their two Finals wins and their one Finals loss is defense. The Nuggets held the Heat to 93 points on .406 field goal shooting in game one and they held the Heat to 94 points on .370 field goal shooting in game three, but the Heat got loose for 111 points on .487 field goal shooting in game two.

If the Nuggets' game two defensive rotations had been just a little sharper, they would enjoy a 3-0 lead now and would be poised to complete a sweep on Friday night. In game three, the Nuggets proved that their game two mistakes were correctable--but, as we will all see as this series progresses, the Heat cannot fix what went wrong for them in game three, because that would require their players to become taller and stronger. The Heat are a scrappy and smart team that may find a way to win game four, but it will be very difficult for them to win three of the next four games.

Many commentators declared that Miami had the advantage in this series after winning game two, but in my game two recap I predicted a double digit Denver win in game three: "Am I surprised that Miami won game two? No--I foreshadowed this possibility in my series preview when I wrote, 'The Heat will fight until the end. They will win a couple games, possibly including one in Denver.' I expect that Denver will win at least one of the next two games in Miami before closing out the series in six games. I would not be surprised if Denver won game three by at least 10 points, nor would I be surprised if the series returns to Denver tied 2-2."

The reason that I give the Heat a puncher's chance to win game four is because there is a natural human tendency to have a bit of a letdown after retaking homecourt advantage with a dominant road win. The Heat will always play hard and smart regardless of how well they are shooting, so if the Nuggets relax a bit defensively then the Heat could win game four by a small margin--but if that happens then the Nuggets will win game five at home in commanding fashion, and close out the series in Miami in game six. If the Nuggets attack the paint on offense and play sound defense in game four then they will win to take a 3-1 lead before closing out the series in five games. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:12 AM



At Thursday, June 08, 2023 10:32:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Denver is clearly the superior team, but Milwaukee and Boston were as well compared to Miami. Strange playoffs overall, but especially with Miami. They were 2 minutes and 17 seconds away from not even making the playoffs. And then they have gone on a great run. Relative to who they were before the playoffs, probably the greatest run in NBA history regardless if they win the title.

Denver did great offensively, but they're still well below their season average in points though very efficient in game 3, but actually less efficient than game 2. They've won 2 of the 3 Finals games primarily because of their defense not their offense though, or Miami's lack of offense, or probably a combination of both.

Denver does have a great offense, but historically? They only finished 12th in the league in scoring though 5th in efficiency.

At Thursday, June 08, 2023 11:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Pace of play generally slows down during the playoffs, so it is not surprising that the Nuggets are scoring below their season average.

We agree that the Nuggets' defense has been a key factor during the Finals. Jokic's point total relative to his assist total has no cause/effect relationship with winning, regardless of what "Screamin' A," Wilbon, and others keep saying.

During the regular season, the Nuggets scored 115.8 ppg while shooting .504 from the field and .379 from three point range. The Nuggets ranked near the bottom of the league in three point attempts, but they ranked fourth in three point field goal percentage. It is difficult to make comparisons across eras because the rules and the styles of play keep changing, but the Nuggets' productivity combined with high shooting efficiency is uncommon.

At Thursday, June 08, 2023 1:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, and there's other factors but pace affects scoring totals.

Miami has a good defense overall, but their offense isn't good especially without Herro. Denver has done well 2 of the 3 games defensively, but it's not like they're playing against a high-powered offense. They just have to show some resistance. Their offense in game 1 was below average, but they still won comfortably.

Just looking at this season given their ppg(#12) and efficiency(#5), they're somewhere in the #5-10 range for best offenses in the league this season probably. They might very well have a historically great offense, but then at least 5 teams this season do as well.

At Thursday, June 08, 2023 6:04:00 PM, Blogger EHR said...


Are you doing a post on all the coaching firings? Seems unprecedented given their resumés.

At Thursday, June 08, 2023 8:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I recently wrote about Nick Nurse, Doc Rivers, and the 76ers. I may write about other coaches after the NBA Finals. I am not sure that the firings are unprecedented; every year, several NBA coaches are fired, and it has become a running joke that being selected as Coach of the Year means that you will be fired soon. It is easier for teams to fire a coach than to trade players, so it is standard operating procedure for teams that are dissatisfied with their results to fire coaches, even if the coaches have been successful.

At Friday, June 09, 2023 1:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't focus just on ppg and efficiency (which can be defined in various ways).

As I noted above, this season the Nuggets combined high scoring with a high field goal percentage and a high three point field goal percentage. The Nuggets are not the highest scoring team, but they shoot a better percentage than the teams that score more than they do.

The Nuggets are not great defensively but they are good enough, and they use their size to their advantage at both ends of the court. They are two wins away from winning the NBA title primarily because of their offense.

At Friday, June 09, 2023 3:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There might be a few other minor reasons for evaluating offenses/defenses, but ppg and efficiency are by far the 2 major reasons. FG % are already incorporated into efficiency. Hypothetically, a team could shoot 80% FGs, but if they have a very high turnover rate and can't offensive rebound well, then their team efficiency might not be very good and their offense overall isn't necessarily great. Denver has a very good offense obviously. Maybe at full strength, they're a top 3 offense, but then again every team improves at full strength overall, too.

Sure, Denver is winning through their offense much more than their defense. As long as their defense does 'something,' they should easily beat Miami, regardless of how great their offense is.

Denver deserves credit, but they're not your usual great title team. I'd say the main reason they're 2 wins away from the title is because of their cupcake playoff schedule. Their opps have won 42, 45, 43, and 44 wins, averaging out to 44 wins. I can't imagine an easier path to the title. They faced Minnesota(very mediocre and imploded late in season), Phoenix(absolutely nothing after their top 3 since Paul was hurt, and Denver's top 3 are still better), Lakers(gave a good effort but definitely overmatched, Denver held advantages at each spot except Reaves outplayed whoever was the #3 for Denver in that series), and Miami(2-3 minutes away from not even being in the playoffs, bad offense though solid defense, but still not close to being a great team). None of their opps are even close to normal contender status.

At Friday, June 09, 2023 3:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I prefer to look at the numbers separately. The overall "efficiency" rating smooths everything together and does not provide a granular picture of a team's offensive performance. Statistics can be used in various ways, and there is not one absolute statistical truth.

I never suggested that Denver is one of the greatest teams of all-time. I just pointed out that they have one of the all-time great offenses based on their ability to score at a pretty high rate while maintaining high shooting percentages.

If they win two more games, then I may think more in depth about their ranking among title teams, but that is premature now. I would say that no title team controls who they play; they only control how they play.

At Monday, June 12, 2023 10:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never said you were suggesting Denver is an all-time great team. I was merely pointing out that don't look great for a normal title team and their path has been super easy. I realize no team can control who they play. But, this is the easiest/luckiest path to the title I can ever remember. All 4 of their opps are mediocre to slightly better than mediocre teams.

At Monday, June 12, 2023 12:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It is not clear how history will view Denver's championship path (assuming that Denver wins the championship). The Heat beat the top two teams in the East. The Lakers have two Top 75 players and were, according to the "experts," the proverbial "team nobody wants to face" after they traded Westbrook for the players I have termed "the triumphant trio." After the Nuggets dismantled the Lakers, a lot of the Lakers hype faded--but before the series, many "experts" picked the Lakers. The Suns were another "team nobody wants to face" with Booker/Durant, but the Nuggets did not seem to mind facing them.

Is it fair to the Nuggets to now call this an easy path just because they made it look easy?


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