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Friday, June 02, 2023

Jokic's Versatility Cools off Heat as Nuggets Win Game One of the NBA Finals

Before analyzing how well the Denver Nuggets played in their 104-93 victory over the Miami Heat in game one of the 2023 NBA Finals, it is important to emphasize that this is not Denver's first Finals appearance; the New York Nets defeated the Denver Nuggets 4-2 in the 1976 ABA Finals as New York's Julius Erving authored one of the greatest performances in playoff history, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg). At that time, only three other players had averaged more points in a Finals series (Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West), and 47 years later Erving's average still ranks sixth in Finals history. 

The Nuggets have a rich history dating back to the ABA that should be honored and recognized by the NBA and the NBA's media partners--as should all of the ABA's statistics and records. Three players from Denver's 1976 Finals team have been inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame--David Thompson, Dan Issel, and Bobby Jones--and Nikola Jokic is well on his way toward earning that honor. 

In game one versus the Heat, Jokic led both teams in scoring (27 points on 8-12 field goal shooting and 10-12 free throw shooting) and assists (14) while also grabbing 10 rebounds. Jokic broke Bill Russell's NBA Finals single game record for assists by a center as he posted his ninth triple double of the 2023 playoffs, extending his own record for most triple doubles in one postseason. Jokic presents a challenge that the Heat seem unlikely to be able to solve: when they guarded Jokic one on one, he killed them with his scoring in the post, but when they sent a second defender to harass Jokic then he dissected them with his passing. Jokic's ability to score, rebound, and pass at a high level wrecked any defense that Miami tried. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly mentioned Jokic's great conditioning, and how that great conditioning enables Jokic to be dominant for all four quarters; that is a major factor that distinguishes two-time regular season MVP Jokic from 2023 regular season MVP Joel Embiid.

Jamal Murray continued his outstanding 2023 playoff run, finishing with 26 points, 10 assists, and six rebounds. Aaron Gordon added 16 points and six rebounds while playing great defense against Jimmy Butler. Michael Porter Jr. contributed 14 points and a game-high 13 rebounds as Denver's size overwhelmed Miami, resulting in a remarkable statistic: the Heat set an NBA playoff single game record by attempting just two free throws; it seemed as if Denver had a moat surrounding the paint on defense and an express lane leading to the paint on offense.

Bam Adebayo led the Heat with 26 points and 13 rebounds while dishing for five assists. Gabe Vincent scored 19 points and had five assists. Haywood Highsmith poured in 18 points on 7-10 field goal shooting in 23 minutes off of the bench, and backup point guard Kyle Lowry provided a lift with 11 points, five assists, and five rebounds.

However, Miami's two Eastern Conference Finals heroes--Jimmy Butler and Caleb Martin--had forgettable games. Butler had 13 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists while compiling a game-worst -17 plus/minus number, and Martin scored three points on 1-7 field goal shooting.

Is Butler wearing down? He began the 2023 playoffs with 35 points, 11 assists, five rebounds, and three steals as the Heat beat the Milwaukee Bucks in game one, becoming just the fourth player to accomplish that stat line more than once in a playoff game since the NBA began tracking steals in 1974, joining Russell Westbrook (three times), Michael Jordan (twice), and LeBron James (twice). Butler scored at least 25 points while shooting at least .500 from the field in each of his first six games this postseason--tied with Bernard King (1984) and Michael Jordan (1992) for the fourth longest such steak ever behind only LeBron James (2017) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (10 in 1970, nine in 1977)--but Butler has shot at least .500 from the field just once in his past 10 playoff games (including game one of the NBA Finals). After scoring at least 30 points in four of his first five playoff games in 2023, Butler has topped the 30 point barrier just once in his last 13 playoff games. 

The NBA is often a first quarter league, and that was very much the case in this game. The Nuggets outscored the Heat 29-20 in the first 12 minutes--including 20-6 in the paint--as Jokic scored just four points but shredded the Heat's defense with six assists. Gordon sliced the Heat to ribbons with his cuts to the hoop, scoring 12 points on 6-8 field goal shooting. The second quarter produced a similar score--30-22 in Denver's favor--but by different means, as the Heat did a better job protecting the hoop only to see the Nuggets shoot 4-5 from three point range. Unlike the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Nuggets do not "dribble, dribble, dribble" into contested jumpers; the Nuggets attack the paint, and create outside shots from their paint attacks. 

Near the end of the third quarter, the Nuggets pushed their lead to 84-60, but the Heat never quit, and they cut the margin to 96-87 with 2:34 remaining in the fourth quarter. Jokic was content to spend most of the game as a distributor, but in the fourth quarter as the Heat made their run he scored 12 points on 4-7 field goal shooting to seal the deal.

Two reasons that the Heat ended up with the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference are anemic offense, and being an undersized team that has difficulty dealing with bigger players/bigger teams. Those are the reasons that I expected the Heat to lose to the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics but--to the Heat's credit--they played much better in the Eastern Conference playoffs than they did during the regular season. The Heat are unlikely to grow prior to game two, and the Nuggets are unlikely to shrink. The Heat can attack the hoop more aggressively, and they can more frequently target Jokic's defense by involving him in the two man game at the top of the key; look for the Heat to do both of those things in game two, but also look for the Nuggets to play even better than they did in game one en route to taking a 2-0 lead before the series shifts to Miami for games three and four.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM



At Friday, June 02, 2023 6:06:00 PM, Blogger EHR said...

I was surprise to see how much Porter, Jr helped with rim protection. Rotated well in this game and obviously showed improvement with on the ball defense throughout the playoffs.

I don’t think Miami has an answer for how dynamic the Nuggets offense is. Miami’s two-three zone probably won’t work in this series since the Nuggets don’t pound the basketball.

Jokic is the only player that I’ve seen that tries to make the right play 100% of the time.

At Friday, June 02, 2023 7:41:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

We should try and figure out how best to play Jokic.

In the Suns series, the Joker scored 53 in a loss. So, if I were Miami, I would force Jokic to be a scorer. Refrain from sending double teams. The Joker prefers to pass more than shoot, so I would try to make him uncomfortable.

In Game 1, the Heat over-helped. They did that in the Celtics series, and while the Celts did somewhat exploit it, the Nuggets made them pay every single time, because they are much more cohesive of a team.

Since the Heat are used to doubling, team pressure defense, and it is effective, makes many teams lose their composure, but the Nuggets are full of selfless guys that think team first.

OTOH, the Heat were just plain too chickenshit to drive to the hoop. So what if Gordon or Porter, etc., block their shot? They can't get to the ball cleanly every time, and they will eventually foul the aggressive player. So they can shoot more than two freebies. They got worried about being shown up.

At Friday, June 02, 2023 9:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


A steady diet of zone defense will not work against a team that is unselfish and patient. Some people believe that zone defenses work against teams that don't shoot well from the outside, but I would say that zone defenses work well against teams that don't know how to move the ball and that don't use the gaps in the zone to get offensive rebounds.

Using the zone randomly on a few possessions may be effective in spurts, or may just coincide with possessions in which the Nuggets miss open shots, but there is a reason that Miami did not play much zone in game one.

At Friday, June 02, 2023 10:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Just because Denver lost a game in which Jokic scored 53 points I would not assume that Denver would lose every such game or most such games. He does not take many bad shots, so he can score 50-plus on a relatively low number of field goal attempts and still also have a lot of assists. If Miami guards Jokic one on one with Adebayo having no help, Jokic could shoot 20-25 from the field (or something along those lines) because Adebayo is too short and too small to bother Jokic's shot, and because Jokic will not settle for bad shots. Jokic will "jump hook him to death" as Shaq would say, except that Jokic has a whole low post arsenal and not just one shot/one move.

I think that the best way to try to minimize Jokic's impact is to force him to expend energy on defense by involving him in screen/roll actions. If I were coaching against Denver, every possession that did not result in a transition score would involve at least one action in which the player Jokic is guarding sets a screen. Maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but I would involve him in as many defensive plays as possible. If he can just stand in the paint conserving energy before gobbling up defensive rebounds and starting the fast break then Miami has no chance.

At Saturday, June 03, 2023 12:01:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

Hello David,

The most frequent player comparison I've seen for Jokic is Larry Bird. I am too young to have seen Bird playing in his prime. Do you think they compare very well? Jokic does sometimes have an over-the-head release for his shots the echoes him. From what classic games I've watched, even though Bird was tagged as "slow" in his time, prime Bird seems rangier and more mobile than Jokic as well as being a somewhat better shooter (better FT%, better 3pt%), though Jokic also has the advantage of a few more inches in height, seemingly more efficient around the basket, and slightly better rebounding.

Otherwise, it is pretty uncanny how similar they are as sweet shooting, triple double threat big men. Curious as to your thoughts.

At Saturday, June 03, 2023 12:26:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Jokic's passing and shooting mechanics are similar to Bird's. As you noted, Bird moved more fluidly and was quicker than Jokic. Although Bird did not cover much horizontal area when he jumped (he was not going to leap from the free throw line to dunk), his vertical leap was better than most people may think, particularly in his first few seasons before his back flared up. Young Larry Bird finished fastbreaks with two handed dunks, and he was a better shotblocker than some noted leapers, including Dominique Wilkins. Bird had seven seasons with at least 60 blocked shots. That may not sound like a lot of blocked shots, but Wilkins only had three such seasons, and Wilkins' top season total was 87 while Bird's was 98. Bird ranks 41st all-time in playoff blocked shots; granted, he played in a lot of playoff games, but the players who rank ahead of Bird are all renowned leapers, or seven foot tall centers.

Jokic combines Bird's perimeter game--passing and shooting--with Kevin McHale's low post game, at least in terms of crafty footwork in the paint. Jokic is bigger and stronger than McHale, while McHale was a much better one on one defender who could guard small forwards, power forwards, and even some centers.

At Saturday, June 03, 2023 10:37:00 PM, Blogger Todd Ash-Duah said...


To me, it seems like Butler is indeed wearing down. Ever since he injured his ankle back in Game 1 of the Knicks series, he has been good, but not superstar-level good, which is what the Heat need to pull off this upset. It feels kind of crazy to doubt the Heat now, considering the historic run they’ve been on, plus the fact that they have one of the greatest coaches of all time. And they’ll probably make adjustments like doing a better job of attacking the rim, but it seems like this will be a very short series (unless Butler is able to revert to his level of play during the Bucks series).


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