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Monday, June 05, 2023

Miami Dissects Denver's Defective Defense

The Miami Heat opened game two of the NBA Finals with a 10-2 run and withstood a furious Denver rally that put the Nuggets up 50-35 before outscoring Denver 36-25 in the fourth quarter to win 111-108 and tie the series at 1-1. Gabe Vincent scored a team-high 23 points on 8-12 field goal shooting, while Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo each added 21 points. Butler shot just 7-19 from the field, but he had a team-high nine assists plus four rebounds while also playing excellent defense versus Jamal Murray. Adebayo shot 8-14 from the field while contributing nine rebounds and four assists. Max Strus scored 14 points while making four three pointers after shooting 0-10 from the field in game one. Duncan Robinson scored all 10 of his points in the decisive fourth quarter.

Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra inserted Kevin Love in the starting lineup in place of Caleb Martin, who scored three points on 1-7 field goal shooting in game one. Love grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds and had a +18 plus/minus number in 22 minutes. Love not only contributed on the boards, but he enabled the Heat to favorably change their defensive matchups; he guarded Aaron Gordon--who feasted on smaller Heat defenders in the first quarter of game one--and this enabled Butler to check Murray. After starring in the Eastern Conference Finals, Martin still has not found his shooting stroke in the NBA Finals, scoring three points on 1-3 field goal shooting in game two; it will be interesting to see if Martin shoots better after the series shifts to Miami, and it will be interesting to see if Spoelstra makes additional rotation changes if Martin continues to struggle.

The Heat shot 17-35 (.486) from three point range after shooting 13-39 (.333) from beyond the arc in game one. The Nuggets survived giving up some open three point shots that the Heat missed in game one, but in game two the Nuggets' defense became worse and Miami punished most of Denver's lapses. The Nuggets conceded wide open three pointers to the Heat's best three point shooters, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope committed two fouls on three point shots en route to fouling out. The Nuggets' defense was awful in the first few minutes, improved a bit after that, and then collapsed in the fourth quarter when the Heat scored 36 points on 11-16 (.688) field goal shooting, including 5-9 (.556) from three point range. 

The Nuggets shot 39-75 (.522) from the field, won the rebounding battle 38-31, and only committed two more turnovers than the Heat (13-11), but their porous defense was too much to overcome. Nikola Jokic scored a game-high 41 points on 16-28 field goal shooting, and he snared a game-high 11 rebounds. Much will be made of the fact that he had four assists--less than half his average--and we will no doubt spend the next three days hearing that the Heat made a masterful "adjustment" by turning Jokic into a scorer instead of being a passer, but the reality is that the Nuggets lost this game because of defensive breakdowns. Coach Michael Malone mentioned this during his timeouts and during his postgame press conference, when he called his team's defensive performance "disappointing" and "perplexing." Anyone who watched the game with understanding could see that the Nuggets lacked game plan discipline, as displayed by poor (or non-existent) closesouts to open shooters, switches that left shooters open, senseless fouls, and poor defensive positioning that conceded easy straight line drives to the hoop. 

In game two, the Nuggets scored more points than they did in game one while also shooting better from the field, the three point line, and the free throw line than they did in game one; there is not a logical, plausible argument that the Heat won game two because they "adjusted" their defense to make Jokic into a scorer and thus negatively impacted Denver's overall offensive efficiency: such an assertion is typical of the false narratives promoted by media members who do not understand how to analyze basketball. Nuggets not named Jokic shot .489 from the field in game two after shooting .478 from the field in game one. Common sense suggests that when a team's best scorer attempts a lot of shots and shoots a good percentage that will increase his team's offensive efficiency, and that is what happened in game two.

Jamal Murray scored 18 points on 7-15 field goal shooting while dishing for a game-high 10 assists. Aaron Gordon (12 points) and Bruce Brown (11 points) also scored in double figures. Ideally, Michael Porter Jr. would score more than five points on 2-8 field goal shooting, but overall the Nuggets' offense did enough to win the game, which is why Denver led 83-75 heading into the fourth quarter. Denver's fourth quarter offense (25 points on 9-16 field goal shooting) was solid, but--as noted above--Miami's fourth quarter offense was off of the charts.

Despite their awful defense, the Nuggets had possession of the ball trailing by three points with 11.4 seconds remaining. The trailing team should do everything possible to extend the game, so it would have been logical to call a timeout, advance the ball, and run a quick-hitting play. Ideally the play would result in a three point shot, but a two pointer in three seconds or less would have been acceptable, because the Nuggets could have fouled and then had another possession down by one, two, or three points (depending on how many free throws the Heat made after Denver fouled). An out of bounds play involving screens to free two three point shooters while also sending a backdoor cutter to the hoop would have forced the Heat to both defend the paint and also contest a possible three point shot attempt. Even if the Nuggets could not get an open three point shot out of the timeout, in a best case alternative scenario the Nuggets would score a backdoor layup, foul a poor free throw shooter who missed both free throws, call their last timeout, and then win the game with a two pointer. Instead, the Nuggets pushed the ball up the court, and time expired as Murray attempted a fadeaway three pointer contested by Butler; as ESPN's Tim Legler noted, if the Nuggets had run a set play out of a timeout they could have dictated matchups and switches instead of having Butler checking Murray, which Legler correctly deemed the least desirable matchup from Denver's perspective. It is surprising that none of the commentators--including Legler and Jeff Van Gundy, two of the best in the business--noted that Denver's late game strategy not only resulted in a bad matchup but also drained the clock instead of extending the game, which should always be the goal of the trailing team. Malone predictably said that the Nuggets got a good look--but that is not the point: in that situation it is important to get the best possible look AND preserve enough time to extend the game even if you miss. Letting the outcome of any game--let alone an NBA Finals game--be determined by a last second heave after you obtained possession with 11 seconds left is not the highest percentage option available. Running out the clock only makes sense if the score is tied, because then you want to have the last possession of the fourth quarter to either win or go to overtime.

The game was not decided in the last 11 seconds, though. The game was decided by Denver's poor defense, culminating in the fourth quarter meltdown. NBA playoff series are not determined by so-called "adjustments" such as "letting" the opposing team's best player score 41 points, nor are they determined by so-called momentum swings--as Danny Ainge once sagely noted, this is not the Tour de France, so the team that lost the previous game does not start out trailing in the next game. NBA playoff series are determined by the optimal exploitation of matchup advantages, and in this series the two most significant advantages favor the Nuggets: the Nuggets have the best player (Jokic), and the Nuggets have more size. Those advantages will wear down the Heat over the course of the series. Size matters in the NBA and that has not changed and will not change, no matter how often people rave about the value of shooting and "pace and space." Spoelstra knows this, which is why he put Love in the starting lineup so that his team would be bigger at the start of the game; the Heat lost game one in the early moments when the Nuggets built a big lead, and--despite the inevitable vicissitudes of a 48 minute game--the Heat won game two in the early moments when they built a big lead by establishing a physical tone that they maintained throughout the game.

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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:36 AM



At Monday, June 05, 2023 11:58:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

When I am right, I'm right. :)

Despite the fact that Jokic scored 41 and pulled down 11 boards, and ran an offense that generated 124 points per 100, the Nuggets lost. The difference was in the assists. Jokic only had 4 against 5 turnovers. His 28 shots exceeded any game in the regular season.

More to the point: the Nuggets are 14-2 when the Joker takes 10 or fewer shots, and 7-13 when he makes 8 or fewer assists. And now the Nuggets are 0-4 in the playoffs when Jokic hits at least 40 points.

At Monday, June 05, 2023 12:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The Nuggets' offense scored more points with better efficiency in game two than in game one, so if you think that you were "right" that the key to beating the Nuggets is "forcing" Jokic to score more than 40 points and have fewer than eight assists then the evidence proves that you are wrong. If the Nuggets had given up four fewer uncontested three pointers and only fouled once on a three point shot instead of twice then they would have won the game by 12 points with Jokic having the exact same statistics. Denver's defense was awful, as Coach Malone noted, and as both Legler and Van Gundy mentioned as well. This nonsense about Denver's success being linked to some arbitrarily selected Jokic numbers is similar to the nonsense that Wilbon and others used to say about the Lakers being better off if Kobe Bryant attempted fewer shots.

Also, Coach Spoelstra was asked about forcing Jokic to score more points being the key to victory and he responded by dismissing such a notion: "That's a ridiculous--that's the untrained eye that says something like that. This guy is an incredible player. You know, twice in two seasons he's been the best player on this planet. You can't just say, 'Oh, make him a scorer.' That's not how they play. They have so many different actions that just get you compromised. We have to focus on what we do. We try to do things the hard way, and he requires you to do many things the hard way. He has our full respect."

I agree with Spoelstra that "Screamin' A," Wilbon and many others who get paid a lot to analyze NBA games have an "untrained eye" for the sport's nuances.

At Monday, June 05, 2023 1:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

on the playground, I know my defensive effort used to sag when playing with ballhogs. I'm not suggesting it's exactly the same at the NBA level or that Joker was a ballhog last night -- but still is there some element where more offensive engagement could've sparked more effort on D? if not, then how to explain lack of effort on D?

At Monday, June 05, 2023 2:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Jokic is a very unselfish player, and he passed to open teammates last night the same way that he always does. An assist requires a made shot at the end of the pass, which is just one reason why it is silly to evaluate a player's passing based primarily on assists. A player could make the exact same passes in consecutive games but have 10 assists in one game and four assists the next game merely because his teammates missed more shots in the second game; one other factor to consider is that if a player makes a pass and the defense rotates quickly then the recipient may make the pass that becomes the assist pass. The first passer in that scenario still did his job and still played unselfishly. There are many great passers whose assist totals do not fully reflect their unselfishness and their passing skills.

I think that the Nuggets became a bit overconfident and complacent defensively after winning game one. People seem to assume that players and teams are robots that perform at the same level every minute of every game, but that is not the case. Obviously, the goal is to play at as high of a level as possible for as long as possible.

At Monday, June 05, 2023 3:18:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

Even after losing home court advantage, the Nuggets should still be the favorites to win the series on paper. I say "on paper" because the Bucks and Celtics were heavy favorites to eliminate the Miami Heat for very legitimate reasons and they both fell 1-3 and 0-3 respectively to this Heat team before ultimately losing the series. Denver could easily tie the series going into game five at home but I wouldn't be surprised if the Heat build a 3-1 lead and clinch at home in game six. This Miami Heat team is making it very difficult to bet against them and they seem to overcome any blatant match-up advantages that the other team has with pure grit.

At Monday, June 05, 2023 4:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Jokic is a very unselfish player, and he passed to open teammates last night the same way that he always does."

I don't really think that's accurate. Miami worked to take away those passes and Jokic ended up taking 16 more shots than he took in Game 1 as a result.

To your point, Denver still scored enough to win. To the other anon's point, maybe more of those shots going to the other guys would have inspired a less embarrassing defensive effort. No way to know for sure, but it doesn't sound completely implausible.

It always seems crazy to me that these guys who get paid millions of dollars to play the game seem to need extra motivation to play it right, but I think we've seen it enough times now to know there's something to it. Not every player is wired that way, and guys like say, PJ Tucker tend to go all-out either way, but there are definitely a lot of dudes who bust more ass on D when they're getting some shots to go in on the other end and I do think MPJ and KCP at least are in that category. Maybe Murray, too.

At Monday, June 05, 2023 8:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You figured it out. The Nuggets blew defensive assignments right at the start of the game because Jokic's teammates thought to themselves, "I hate playing with Jokic. He is so selfish. I just know that tonight he is going to score 41 points and only have four assists, so why should I even try on defense." That also explains why KCP fouled a three point shooter not once, but twice. That will teach Jokic to be more unselfish!

The ability of the Denver players to predict in the first quarter that Jokic would not pass the ball to them is amazing, exceeded only by your ability to perfectly understand the motivations of NBA players.

All season long, we have seen how much drama emanates from the Nuggets' locker room. If only Jokic had the leadership abilities of, say, Chris Paul. That is the best leader in the NBA. His teams never have any drama, they always play hard in crucial playoff games, and all of his teammates love him.


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