The Heat Forgot Which Direction The Rim Is In
9:40 AM EDT on June 2, 2023
Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals was not close. The Denver Nuggets—higher seeded and enjoying their unique home-court advantage after a whopping 11 days of rest—went up nine points over the Miami Heat in the first quarter, extended their lead to double digits early in the second, blew the game open in the third, and then calmly fought off a couple mildly interesting Heat runs in the fourth to secure a 104–93 victory. The Nuggets played like a top seed; the Heat, just the second eighth seed in NBA history to make the Finals, unfortunately played much too much like an eighth seed.
There was no real stretch of consecutive possessions Thursday night when it seemed like the Nuggets were particularly bothered by anything the Heat had to offer. In the early going Denver used screens and player movement to create positional mismatches in the paint, and Nikola Jokic, acting as a gigantic distributor, was perfectly happy to hang out around the elbows and throw pinpoint entry passes, racking up 10 first-half assists against just three shot attempts. "I don’t force it," Jokic said from the locker room after the game, having barely broken a sweat. "I never force it, I think. I just take whatever the game gives me." What the game gave him via the Miami Heat Thursday night was no real reason to exert himself offensively, which is a problem for people hoping for a long and hard-fought series: It's supposed to be Jokic's offensive heroics that propel the Nuggets to excellence. For most of Thursday night, Jokic was like a dad stepping into his kids' pickup game, willing to chip in a bucket here and there but mostly intent upon making sure everyone around him got a little taste of success and felt good about themselves.
If you get rolled by the Nuggets with Jokic's pulse never rising above 80 beats per minute, you've got some serious work ahead of you. "Yeah, we’re definitely going to have to go to school on it," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told the Denver Post after the game. "They are in a pretty good rhythm, especially in that first half."
It may have been Miami's theory that an aggressive offensive game from Bam Adebayo, together with the kind of three-point barrage the Heat used to level the Bucks and Knicks in the early rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs, would force Jokic into overtaxing himself defensively. And, indeed, Adebayo was excellent, leading the Heat with 26 points on efficient shooting. But Miami's shooters failed to put together one of those psycho shooting stretches that have so far defined this playoff run, Denver's defense was never really dragged out of shape, and the focus on perimeter play turned the Heat maddeningly passive about venturing into the paint. I had to check the NBA's shot chart feature this morning to make sure the Heat attempted more than three or four total shots at the rim. The combined two free throws attempted by the 11 Heat players who took the floor Thursday night are a testament—a record-setting one, in fact—to Miami's single-minded focus on winning Game 1 via the jump shot.
Miami's makes from deep tended to come in bunches, but unfortunately their misses tended to come in even larger bunches. This is when it's helpful to remember that the Heat are not in general a very good three-point shooting team. They finished the regular season fourth worst in all of basketball at three-point accuracy, on middling volume, which is to say the Heat were closer to the team at the bottom of the league in attempts per game than the team at the top. That you are not very good at shooting threes doesn't mean you shouldn't take them—Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla recently said that three-point attempt rate was the most important statistic in modern basketball—but if the Heat are prepared to live or die in this series by three point proficiency, they should probably start getting their affairs in order. Thursday night they needed some balance in their offense, but excepting a few times when Denver's defense suffered breakdowns and miscommunications, the Heat opted to keep their distance from the rim.
They're aware of the problem, at least, and understood that the shocking free-throw disparity came not from lopsided officiating but from offensive squeamishness. "We shot a lot of jump shots instead of putting pressure on the rim, getting layups, getting to the free-throw line," said Jimmy Butler, who finished with just 13 points on 14 shots, after averaging just under 29 points per game through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Butler, who like 10 other Heat players attempted zero free throws in this one, was strikingly passive. The Heat used ball-screens to get him pointed toward the basket against drop coverage—often just slow-footed Jokic camped at the edge of the paint—and on approximately one zillion of these Butler opted for pull-up mid-rangers. Those are shots Butler is pretty good at, but layups and free throws and especially fouls on Jokic would all have had greater value to the Heat during the competitive portion of Game 1. Butler had five shot attempts inside the paint Thursday night, but only one was a drive to the basket. "Got to get more layups and free throws," he said after the game. "We've got to attack the rim a lot more, myself included."
Whatever it is that will make the rest of the series more competitive than Game 1, it will not be the Nuggets falling back to Earth. In some respects they were closer to Earth than usual, and in at least one regard they were closer to Earth than the Heat were: Denver, one of the league's most accurate three-point shooting teams during the regular season and throughout the Jokic era, missed 19 of 27 attempts from beyond the arc Thursday night, by volume and percentage a worse showing than the team whose asses they all too easily karate-kicked off. There was a distinct mid-major vibe to Miami's whole bearing Thursday night: the well-meaning but distinctly permeable zone defense; the almost deferential refusal to make Jokic protect the rim; the vain hope that uncharacteristically hot three-point shooting would carry them over a physically superior and favored opponent. Apart from just being a kind of depressing vibe for a damn Finals game, it's also a kind of abandonment of The Dog In Them that powered the Heat to this moment. One must remember always to dance with the internal canine that brought them.
The Heat will have to stiffen up, and muster up some offense, and that offense is going to have to hold up in some games where Jokic comes out of half-sleep, does any amount of sweating, and bothers for more than a few scattered possessions to think of himself as more than a proud papa, operating at a supportive remove from his healthy and thriving teammates. If you're gonna lose to the game's best player, at least make sure he's the one who beats you.