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Miami Punches Back

DENVER, CO - JUNE 4: Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat looks on during Game Two of the 2023 NBA Finals against the Denver Nuggets on June 4, 2023 at the Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

For the first time since March, the Nuggets have lost a game in Denver. The Lakers, Suns, and Wolves all tried and failed during these playoffs, as did those who visited even after the Nuggets gave up late in the regular season. There is the altitude, yes, but the Nuggets' offense is so physically and schematically demanding that almost no team can resist playing the game on Denver's terms, at their tempo, in the spaces they want to play it. Which is to say, the Miami Heat winning Game 2 of the NBA Finals on the road is impressive, and though the scoreboard says it was a narrow 111-108 Heat win, this was not a squeaked-out victory that was decided by wholesale shooting luck, or a few bad breaks, or that bizarre missed goaltending call. This was a Miami Heat game, played on their terms, in the most hostile road environment in the league—a stunning win that earned them the split and places the strategic burden squarely on Michael Malone's shoulders.

After Nikola Jokic destroyed Miami with his passing in Game 1, he logged only four assists in Game 2 despite playing 42 minutes. He only notched four or fewer helpers three times all season, in blowout losses where he played fewer than 30 minutes. Some of that is certainly shooting—Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope combined for a disaster-class 3-for-12—though most of it is scheme. Miami sent help at Jokic less often, and when they did, it came from weirder angles and at weirder times. Think basically the opposite of the Haywood Highsmith double team that Jokic instantly diced up in Game 1. With his shooters covered and with the Heat refusing to let cutters get into the lane for free, Jokic turned into the scorer the Heat wanted him to be, shooting more than twice as much as he did in Game 1 en route to 41 points.

I hope that does not sound like a simple or straightforward gameplan, because the effort and brainpower the Heat expended keeping the Nuggets to 108 was tremendous. Bam Adebayo was spectacular; even if Jokic ate him up in one-on-one on a few possessions, Adebayo didn't let him establish any position or operate with the ball with any level of comfort when he was guarding him. But Adebayo shone as a zone defender. Miami played more zone than anyone this season, and with Jokic on the court, Denver played against the zone better than anyone. Spoelstra succesfully gummed up the works with the zone late in Game 1, though Jokic eventually found a way through. Not in Game 2. The way to beat a vanilla 2-3 zone is to work through a player at the nail and hit two passes in a row faster than the zone can rotate. The Heat do not play a vanilla zone. They always had a guy fighting with Jokic at the nail, Adebayo was always in position to step up on Jokic or react to anyone who got into the middle, and the Heat's corps of Weird Little Guys defended the airspace that Jokic wants to pass into. It only works if everyone is connected and violent, which is to say, it only works if you are the Miami Heat.

Miami didn't play the majority of their defensive possessions in zone, though they leaned on it heavily in a fourth quarter they won 36-25. Denver was actually leading for most of the game, as Jokic was scoring consistently enough, the Nuggets were forcing enough turnovers to run a bit, and Miami had to keep shooting their way out of bad offensive possessions. But the Heat turned a late seven-point third quarter deficit into an early five-point fourth quarter lead (and then a late double-digit fourth-quarter lead) with a stunning flurry of aggression. Denver's clearly more talented, yet the Heat showed why they've sprung three upsets and could easily a spring a fourth. They began the frame with a solo Duncan Robinson 8-0 run, and after Jokic re-entered, they started attacking him on every possession. Jokic spent Game 1 playing mostly drop and sometimes showing at the level of the screen, though he dropped more often in Game 2 and the Heat killed him. They'd run a double screen, an inverted pick-and-roll, a quick-hit pass to the guy Jokic was momentarily helping onto, anything to force him to move in space. It was deadly.

They also picked up where they left off in Boston and drained a ridiculous number of threes, finishing 17-for-35, though a couple of boneheaded KCP fouls on threes made it functionally more like 19-for-37. Their talent deficit is such that they probably can't win unless they shoot the lights out, and while math says they're playing over their heads, a different branch of math says they only need to win three more games to win the championship. Maybe it's just shooting luck, but the Heat's shot creation process was also more sound, so they deserved to outshoot Denver in Game 2. Jimmy Butler was far more aggressive, and he was particularly good towards the end of the game. Also, if you shoot this well for four playoff series, maybe it also stops being a matter of luck. Whichever it was, they made Denver pay for missed closeouts and late rotations, and Kevin Love's triumphant return to the starting lineup helped them keep the floor spaced with plus shooters throughout the game.

Despite all that, Denver had a chance to tie it at the buzzer. Jamal Murray came alive at the very end of the game, hitting two huge threes to bring it to a one-possession game. Murray was the zone's primary casualty, as he and Jokic can't work their orchestral two-man game if the opponent is determined to guard space, not players. He finally got rocking in the last three minutes, and for a brief few minutes at the end of Game 2, with the outcome hanging in the balance, you could see the unbelievably entertaining dynamic of this series crystallizing. Denver is going to try and create beautiful offensive magic when they have the ball, whether that's Jamal Murray hitting the hardest shots you've ever seen or Nikola Jokic inventing new angles; the Heat will try and sever all the connective tissue of that style, imposing their muddy, determined brand of basketball onto the Nuggets. While Murray was going nuts, Butler was also backing guys down and nailing tough shots. How could you not love watching that? The push and pull should be deliriously fun to watch—can the Nuggets push through the muck? Is Kevin Love going to do enough on Aaron Gordon for Butler to keep being able to guard Murray? Will the Heat keep scoring enough to make it work? Whoever said this would be boring slop was wrong as hell.

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