Minutes after Game 2, in which the Heat knotted up their NBA Finals series with Denver at one apiece, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra took one final question at his postgame press conference.
It was a worthwhile one from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, who essentially asked whether the Heat’s game plan defensively sought to force Nikola Jokić, the world’s best player and passer, into being more of a scorer.
“That’s a ridiculous … that’s the untrained eye that says something like that,” Spoelstra said, while rubbing his eyes, possibly out of frustration with the perfectly fair question. “This guy is an incredible player. Twice in two seasons he’s been the best player on this planet. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, let’s 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 forces you to do many things the hard way. He has our full respect.”
The response was just as fair as Shelburne’s question. But with all due respect, that often did look like what the Heat were trying to do with The Joker. After all, Jokić finished with 41 points on 28 shot attempts, more than double the number of tries (12) he had in Game 1, where he finished with 27 points. More importantly, though, was the number of assists he logged. On Sunday, the two-time MVP had just four dimes—down from the 14 he handed out in Game 1. (Taking things one step further: Jokić sought to score himself on 10 of the 13 post-up looks Sunday, far more often than in Game 1, where he looked for his own shot on just five of his nine post-up efforts. Denver didn’t get a single three-point attempt out of any of his posts Sunday.)
With Miami’s victory, a number of analysts pointed out that it marked the first time this postseason that anyone had beaten Denver on the road, where the altitude makes life a living hell for visiting clubs. But perhaps even more noteworthy than that statistic: The Nuggets are now 0–3 in these playoffs when Jokić goes for 40 points or more, and 13–1 when he has 39 or fewer. On a similar wavelength, Denver went 4–8 in regular-season games when Jokić compiled seven assists or less and went winless—0–3—in ones where he had four dimes or fewer.
Those metrics don’t seem like a coincidence, given how integral—how all encompassing—Jokić is to this club’s offense. He often brings the ball up the floor for Denver: sometimes in transition, and other times just because in half-court scenarios. He’s a hub for the Nuggets—he averages more touches at the elbow and in the post than any other player in the sport—and directs traffic for them. He’s dominant in the two-man game with Jamal Murray and seemingly has his own give-and-go body language with the star guard. And while Jokić often operates slowly to fully survey where he wants to go with the ball, other times he makes brilliant split-second choices, like the beautiful touch lob he threw to Aaron Gordon for a reverse lay-in.
But a few things were quite different in Game 2. Miami’s lineup had a new look, adding size by plugging in power forward Kevin Love replacing an under-the-weather Caleb Martin—a shift that both gave the Heat more size defensively to limit Gordon’s interior presence and allowed Jimmy Butler to guard Murray early on. (Love was a +18 in just 22 minutes of action, as starters Max Strus and Gabe Vincent shot the ball extremely well.) Miami also got to the line far more—20 times—after tying an NBA record with just two free throw tries as a team in Game 1.
The other factor, despite Spoelstra’s answer in the press conference, was the way Miami guarded Jokić. For the most part, the Heat avoided sending hard double teams at him, instead opting to stay home on Denver’s stable of shooters to limit attempts from the three-point line.
Of Jokić’s four assists, just one led to a triple. And it came with just over a minute left in the contest, after Jokić grabbed an offensive rebound and fired a pass to Murray while the defense was scrambling after failing to secure the miss.
Because of that attention to detail and Miami’s decision to not let other players beat them from deep off Jokic finds, Jokić took matters into his own hands. He kept things close in the first quarter by scoring 11 points when the rest of Denver’s starting five struggled to get going.
The rest of the Nuggets finally came to life a bit in the second period behind solid efforts from Murray and Christian Braun. And honestly much of that might have been because Miami had less of a game plan when Denver’s other rotation players had a greater hand in everything. Braun, Bruce Brown and Jeff Green—the three Nuggets’ reserves—logged plus-minus metrics of +8, +14 and +12, respectively, during their time on the floor, illustrating that Miami had far less success when contending with Denver’s mixed rotations than the starters alone. It was how the Nuggets engineered a 14-point swing in the opening five minutes of the second period to take an 11-point advantage after trailing at the end of the first.
But in the second half, Jokić was largely forced to go back to bulldozing. He put up enormous scoring numbers as a result, as no one—not even perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Bam Adebayo—could stop him. At the same time, though, Adebayo often made him work. Take this sequence from the third quarter, for example, in which Jokić uses seven dribbles, two head fakes and more than seven seconds to finally score on Adebayo in the paint.
Even with Jokić scoring, that possession was undoubtedly a victory of sorts for Miami. The Heat forced him to do something he’d prefer not to and, by not coming off their assignments, stopped him from setting up a teammate for a triple. It’s something we’ll almost certainly see more of in Game 3. (Albeit perhaps with less Cody Zeller, who looked awful in defending Jokić. Don’t be surprised if Spoelstra attempts to match Adebayo’s minutes with Jokić’s going forward.)
Following the game, Michael Malone was blunt, saying his team didn’t play hard enough against a desperate Heat club that’s proved it won’t back down from anyone. And in watching the performance back, there’s truth to that. Kyle Lowry, one of the shortest players on the floor, was able to grab a key offensive board in the trenches. Michael Porter Jr. shot just 2-for-8 but somehow was even more ghastly on the defensive end, where he seemed to show limited effort and help. (Strus got countless open looks from deep because of his mishaps.) Veteran wing and one-time NBA champion Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also struggled, both by shooting just 1-for-4 and by committing a pair of uncharacteristic, costly three-point shooting fouls.
There figures to be another wrench thrown into the mix soon, if not for Game 3: Guard Tyler Herro, Miami’s second-leading scorer in the regular season, could be back from the broken shooting hand he sustained in the playoff opener in April. While his return should be a boon for the Heat, who lack playmakers beyond Adebayo and the hobbled Butler, it’s worth watching how naturally the defense-challenged Herro plugs back into the solid Miami defense, especially against a Denver team that, at times, looks unguardable with all the high-level passing, shooting and cutting in its rotation.
But perhaps it’ll be a bit easier to integrate Herro back into things defensively if the Heat are set on staying at home with Denver’s perimeter shooters. Despite what so many of us thought, it’s now Jokić and the favored Nuggets who need to find a counter ahead of Game 3, one that allows the superstar to make plays for his teammates, even with Miami committed to making sure they don’t get good looks.