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Force Majeure: In the face of Denver's dominance, Miami should mostly pray — voila! sport


Highlights: Nikola Jokic is a perfect offensive package that the opposing defense needs to prepare for. Miami at its peak is an enterprising and surprising defensive team, one that the offense finds itself responding to and not the other way around. The Nuggets seem to have a solution to every problem the defense poses to them. Miami is the best regional team in the league, but even they were afraid to try a zone against JokIC. The rookie seems very comfortable playing against the zone, seeing opportunities to move with and without the ball to the ring and breaking the defense.

In recent years, we've seen plenty of turnarounds in the Finals, but after 3 games between Denver and Miami, the Nuggets' professional advantage seems too great. How will the picture change?

It all starts with Jokic. I'm still holding back on what we're seeing from Jokic in this playoffs, waiting for the final round to come in the next week and a half. But you can't start analyzing the final from any point other than the big man from Serbia. Because, as with all Denver series in this playoffs, the starting point of the Finals is that Nikola Jokic is a perfect offensive package that the opposing defense needs to prepare for in a different way than it is used to.

One of the biggest defensive advantages of Erik Spoelstra and Miami is versatility, the ability to play multiple styles and switch methods on the fly. Miami at its peak is an enterprising and surprising defensive team, one that the offense finds itself responding to and not the other way around. Against Denver and Jokic, Spoelstra used all his tools and briefly managed to surprise Mike Malone and his players, but as the series progresses, the Nuggets seem to have a solution to every problem the defense poses.

Miami opened the series by trying to make it difficult for Jokic to get the ball, Bam Adebayo trying to keep in front of him and interfere with the inside pass. But already during the first move of the final, Jamal Murray took advantage of the fact that in such a situation there was no help at all in the paint and easily reached the ring. Denver continued to take advantage of the sparse paint with the help of Aaron Gordon's post game. Miami also tried to bring significant help against Jokic's post game, but quickly gave up on that direction because he the Joker started handing out assists everywhere.

Miami is the best regional team in the league, but even they were afraid to try a zone against Jokic and initially preferred to switch to the zone only during his rest minutes. But when the first game started to run away, Spoelstra moved to the zone against Jokic as well, and was able to get Denver out of rhythm for a few minutes. NBA teams consistently have a hard time against this defense because they are forced to perform drills they are not used to, and even if they hit good shots, they are in situations that players are less used to and they often miss. It happened to the Nuggets in the first few games, too. But in the last game they were more comfortable against the Azzurri, thanks in no small part to the secret weapon against this defense: Christian Brown. The rookie seems very comfortable playing against the zone, seeing opportunities to move with and without the ball to the ring and breaking the defense.

It all starts and ends with him. Jokic (Photo: Reuters)

In the end, what worked best in the second game, but also not really, was to avoid as much help as possible against Jokic and live with the points he scores. Jimmy Butler guarded Jamal Murray excellently and the Nuggets' supporting cast struggled to make good shots. Jokic scored a superb 41 points and Denver's offensive efficiency remained high, but its offensive game was less fluid than usual, enough to wonder if Sposeltra had found a solution that worked.

The response came in the first quarter of Game 3. Denver used pick-n-roll between Jokic and Murray in that quarter on every offense, and Miami had no answer to the league's deadliest move. Jokic's blocks were precise and mostly low, allowing Murray the little margin he needed to get on the shot. At their climax, Marie and Jokic look like one well-oiled unit, understand each other telepathically, violate each other, always know who is better to attack. Butler and Bam, one of the best pick-n-roll guard duos in the league, were left helpless. Malone's message was clear: There's no such thing as letting Jokic be a scorer, letting Jokic and Murray be scorers. Anyone who doesn't bring help against their pick-n-roll game will get a basket from one of them on almost every offense.

Spoelstra quickly gave up trying to keep them unhelped. Already in the second quarter, he began to perform a blitz on Murray - an aggressive double-team beyond the three-point line designed to get the ball out of his hand. That also came as a bit of a surprise to Denver and led to some losses, but in the big picture it's a huge win for the Nuggets offense, because it frees Jokic to attack at 4-3. In the second half, he positioned himself on the three-point line to provide Murray with a delivery angle and dismantled the defense from there.

It's hard to believe that the Murray blitz would become a regular tactic, it makes more sense that it was an attempt to surprise Denver in this particular game. After all the attempts, as we approach a point in the series where it's harder to pull off new surprises, Miami is back to square one: There's no one way to stop Nikola Jokic, certainly not with the defensive tools it has. It still has the variety, the ability to switch defenses, force the offense to react and hope to catch Denver's offense off guard some of the time. So far it's not working. The low pace of play masks the Nuggets' exceptional offensive qualities. Denver's offensive efficiency in the Finals is 117.6, tied for second place in the regular season.

Denver's superiority is even more pronounced than you see. Murray (Photo by Getty Images, Matthew Stockman)

Denver's defense

Miami's offensive efficiency, on the other hand, is 110, equivalent to 27th in the regular season. Her fluctuations between games are very sharp: in losses she scored 101.1 points per 100 possessions, in a 129.1 win. One reason for that is that in the Heat's win, they connected to one of their excellent shooting days from three (I'd write that the percentages are exceptional, but they do it throughout the playoffs) and Denver's defense was unusually unfocused for it, making a lot of simple mistakes in shutouts, rotation and bringing in excessive help. So Malone emphasized that the most important change between the second and third games was in his players' ability to make a mental switch. Game 3 was arguably Denver's best defensive game of the year.

Miami has three main ways to hit good shots: Butler's isolation against guards he gets in a substitution (he tackles Kentavius Caldwell-Pope with surprising ease), Bam vs. Jokic isolations that end with shots from the far side of the paint, and Bam blocks for three-point specialists. The third option was most effective in the second game. With Bam blocking a good three-pointer, Jokic had to go high, which is a great starting point for Miami. If he cuts inside and in quite a few cases is available for an easy basket, if help arrives it means that another shooter is available and if Jokic is able to get back to him, he is already tired and the offense continues to work with him and move him. In the second game, Miami seemed to find a way to consistently take advantage of Jokic's slowness on defense.

But the Joker learns rivalry during the series and responds with the little nuances that make the difference. In the third game, he no longer came out very high to shoot blocks, but found the exact position where he makes shooting difficult on some level but can also return to his player easily. Jokic likes the midrange in the pick-n-roll defense, not to go very low and not to stay very high, and it seems that for each opponent he identifies the position that is best in front of him. Overall, Denver realized it preferred to live with dribbling threes by players like Gabe Vincent and Max Strus rather than them starting a move where one of them finishes with a free look for a catch-and-shoot. Even in defending Bam, Jokic seems to be learning to recognize the moments when Bam stops for a shot and manages to make more and more of his half-floaters difficult.

With his threes, the Nuggets can live. Max Strus with Kevin Love (Photo: Reuters)

Malone has made an overarching goal not to let Miami's players get to the ring and he's succeeding. Heat players are shooting 9.7 percent from under the basket so far in the Finals, significantly lower than any team in the regular season. There was also no significant difference between Miami's losses and its win in this regard. I haven't mentioned Aaron Gordon so far, so it's a good place to make it clear that he has a big part to play in that, both in protecting Butler who doesn't need help and in helping in the paint.

But in Game 53, along with exceptional paint defense (Miami shot 7.34 percent under the basket in that game), the threes defense was also excellent. Today it was announced that this was the game in which the guards' distance from three-point shooters was the lowest in Miami's entire playoffs, which means the shots were the hardest for the Heat in this game. Denver stopped with the excessive help and decided it was willing to live with the isolation of Butler, who had long since proven he could win games on his own.

Forget how to win games alone? Butler (Photo: Reuters)

Another word about Jokic

As the article progresses, more and more small things accumulate that this one-time player does. Game 3 of the Finals is a strong candidate to be the biggest game of his career so far, especially considering the status and situation, after a first home loss in the playoffs. His numbers were historic: 32 points in excellent percentage, 21 rebounds and 10 assists, and they are far from telling the whole story. His perfect blocks for Murray don't fit into the stats, nor his cleverness and precision in the pick-n-roll defense, nor his excellent ring defense in this game, when Spoelstra's players constantly missed in front of him. Many of his 21 rebounds were tough rebounds, in crowds, from less-than-ideal positions, there were also some shots that weren't recorded as his rebounds but got Denver the ball. It was a perfect game by a complete player. And this I write when I hold back.

And what will you say about his defense? Jokic (Photo by Getty Images, Mike Ehrmann)

How will Miami respond?

Two years ago, Phoenix led 0-2 in the finals and lost. A year ago, Boston led 1-2 in the Finals and lost. The current final is also far from finished. Sure when it comes to Miami, the ultimate underdog. They weren't counted in the first round against Milwaukee, they didn't believe in them in the regional finals against Boston, they thought the Cinderella story was over when the Celtics came back from 3-0. But they are still with us, still strong in matters in the final after securing an away win thanks to a heroic performance. Denver is a very hard team to beat, every playoff loss feels like an event, Miami will need three near-perfect games out of four. But if there's a team that can do it, it's Miami.

On the other hand, you can't ignore the fact that they reached the finals after an exhausting series. Spoelstra's ability to connect to one of their perfect games is diminishing as the playoffs progress. It's easy to miss the fact that Miami has lost five of its last seven games and in all five losses has been far from convincing. Jimmy no longer looked like the player who could take games on himself almost alone, since the first round it happened only one more time.

On a professional level, it's hard to predict what Spoelstra's next reaction might be. He brought Kevin Love back into the team and it worked for one game, but Love doesn't dismiss the Nuggets' size and talent advantage. Tyler Herro, Miami's best scorer off the dribble, won't return for the upcoming game and the chances of him returning to the Finals seem to be diminishing. I believe Spoelstra will try to focus on the long offenses where Jokic has to move in and out, asking his players to insist on moving the ball and not be tempted by mediocre shots Denver allows them to take, hoping it will reawaken his secondary players who were so good in Game <>. Perhaps there will be no choice but to rely more on Duncan Robinson, despite his defensive limitations.

Who will be Spoelstra's next bunny? Duncan Robinson (Photo by Getty Images, Justin Edmonds)

Miami will treat the next game as a must-win game and Denver less, and Malone will likely give his stars more minutes of rest than the previous game. A difference in urgency can decide such games, but Denver has also proven that it never takes its foot off the gas and refuses to give up games. Professionally, Denver's advantage is clear, scoring higher percentages and controlling the rebound. That's despite not scoring well from the outside (eight threes per game on 32.9 percent shooting), even though Michael Porter Jr. and Caldwell-Pope didn't quite make it to the series offensively, and even though Miami loses balls at a minimal rate, these are all stats that are likely to align with Denver.

If Denver found the right defensive balance in the last game, and if it maintains the level of concentration and defensive decision-making that characterized it in this game (and has characterized it for most of the playoffs), Spoelstra may not have the tools to respond to the fact that his offensive game can produce greater advantages that will undermine Denver's defense. If Miami wins the series, it will probably be thanks to the ability to get into the Nuggets' players' heads and undermine them, taking advantage of their lack of class experience. Perhaps another perfect game with an almost mystical tinge, the kind Miami had so much throughout the playoffs, could create such an effect.

  • sport
  • NBA


  • Denver Nuggets
  • Miami Heat

Source: walla

All sports articles on 2023-06-09

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