Miami Heat vs Denver Nuggets NBA Finals Game 1 Takeaways: Strategies, Coverages, and Adjustments for Game 2

The Denver Nuggets convincingly defeated the Miami Heat 104-93 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Miami needed a late run to keep it that close too as Denver led by 21 points entering the 4th quarter. How did the Nuggets manage to gain tactical edges? What adjustments can Miami make? Check out below for key Game 1 takeaways and potential strategies the teams may employ in future games.  

*All clips via NBA.com

Aaron Gordon Bully Ball 

With a frontcourt of Jimmy Butler (6’7”), Caleb Martin (6’5”), and Bam Adebayo (6’9”), the Heat are at a significant size disadvantage. Adebayo is the only defender that can withstand brutal onslaughts of physical play around the basket, and Denver immediately exploited this weakness. Three of their first five possessions featured Aaron Gordon physically posting up smaller Heat defenders like it was the 1990s. 

Gordon’s immense strength and hyper-athleticism already deem him a formidable assignment for Miami’s undersized defenders, but his keen positioning makes him even deadlier. In the following clip, Gordon uses his right shoulder to hold 6’2” Gabe Vincent in place. Once Vincent attempts to front Gordon, he quickly swings his left leg and hips to trap Vincent outside of the paint. Once this occurs, Vincent has no chance of re-establishing his position between Gordon and the basket. Jokic’s entry pass is pinpoint accurate, and it’s an easy dunk from there. 

Gordon was even posting up before the offense became set. 

The Heat don’t have the personnel to stonewall Gordon, so this will be an ongoing issue for them throughout the series. Their zone defense allows them to place multiple defenders near the basket and somewhat deter Gordon, but then they are at the mercy of Jokic’s passing and Denver’s three-point shooters. 

For an offense as modern as Denver’s, it was refreshing to see them utilize old-fashioned strategies. Teams can scheme all they want, but sometimes it’s as simple as caveman basketball. 

Nikola Jokic Hyper-Drop Coverage 

Denver decided to defend the pick and roll by having Jokic aggressively play drop coverage. He often didn’t even venture past the free throw line and constantly backpedaled towards the basket as the Miami ball handler turned the corner around the screen. Jokic contested the shot when the ball handler dribbled too close to the paint, but he allowed open pull-up jumpers past the free throw line. 

Because Bam Adebayo and Cody Zeller offer zero spacing, Jokic wasn’t concerned with a pick and pop from the screener and could anchor himself inside. Denver’s perimeter defender also ignored the screener and solely focused on chasing the ball handler, which placed time pressure on the ball handler to get the shot off before the defender recovered. 

Jokic even deployed this tactic when Miami wasn’t running a pick and roll. In the following clip, he entices Adebayo to abandon a drive and settle for a jump shot. 

Adebayo and Butler are at their best when they get downhill attacking the basket. Through this coverage, Denver transformed the duo from dangerous slashers into decent pull-up scorers. Although they can knock down these shots, they are far less effective in this role. And because the Heat routinely settled for jumpers, they didn’t seek contact on drives and draw fouls. Miami’s offense relies on free throws, and they only managed to draw two the entire game because of Denver’s rim deterrence. 

The Nuggets essentially dared the Heat to win via pull-up jumpers, and that’s not their strength. Miami missed more than usual in Game 1, so regression to the mean is expected; however, the Heat need higher percentage offense to keep pace with this historic Denver offense. Coach Spoelstra needs to solve this coverage before Game 2 and pull Jokic out of his comfort zone. 

Jimmy Butler Isolation  

When the Heat ran a Butler-Adebayo pick and roll, Butler had no driving lane due to Jokic’s drop coverage. That’s the issue with a non-shooting center – it clogs the paint because opponents don’t respect the catch-and-shoot threat. In the clip below, Butler can feel Gordon hanging on his left shoulder, and he can’t drive with Jokic lurking. Therefore, he makes the correct read and passes to Adebayo for an open jumper. It’s a good look for Miami, but Denver is more than happy to get the ball out of Butler’s hands. 

When Butler isolated though, he utilized his slashing ability to either achieve a layup or kick it out to a three-point shooter. 

The Heat desperately need Butler to be a high volume scorer, and isolating him more frequently places him in a better position to succeed. The numbers corroborate this; for the playoffs, he’s produced 0.92 points per possession as a pick and roll ball handler and 1.02 points per possession in isolation. 

Miami also may benefit from using Caleb Martin or Max Strus as a screener to maintain the spacing integrity and enhance Butler’s offense. That would mean Adebayo acts as an off-ball screener more frequently, which would provide three-point shooters with a brick wall to lose their defender. 

Michael Porter Jr Rim Protection 

Porter Jr is an otherworldly three-point shooter and a terror in transition, but he struggled mightily on defense entering this season. However, he’s shed that weakness and now functions as a solid on-ball defender and effective weak-side rim protector. In the clip below, he uses all of his 6’10” frame to bother Miami’s shot twice in a row. 

His length allows him to recover when beaten too, as displayed by this block on Jimmy Butler. 

He is taller than any Heat starter, so his contests are truly devastating. With Porter Jr lurking, Denver basically fields two rim protectors, which grants them plenty of defensive freedom. Jokic and Gordon have larger roaming areas as a result because Porter Jr can rotate at any moment to contest shots. Given that Miami thrives when attacking the basket, look for Spoelstra to drag Porter Jr away from the rim. Perhaps Porter Jr’s assignment sets the screen instead of Adebayo. 

Haywood Highsmith Minutes 

Where do the Heat keep finding these undrafted guys? In a game where points were at a premium, Highsmith contributed 18 points on 7/10 shooting. He’s a smart cutter who knows when to leverage Butler or Adebayo’s playmaking. 

Highsmith will also knock down threes at a respectable rate, which is a necessary trait when playing with Butler and Adebayo. His ability to be a threat from all areas of the court means Denver must constantly devote at least some defensive attention to him. That can foment chaos and give Miami avenues to exploit Denver. 

More importantly, Highsmith (6’7”) is a physical defender that brings size, quick hands, and a knack for anticipating the action. Across his 22 minutes, Highsmith notched two steals and one block. The Heat were only -3 during his playing time too, so it was competitive with Highsmith on the court. 

Given Denver’s size advantage and superb offense, Highsmith will likely see a minutes increase this series. He’s their best Aaron Gordon defender outside of Adebayo, who must be tethered to Jokic at all times. If Highsmith can hit his threes, then Miami has a true X factor on their hands. 

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Braxton has been covering the NBA for Lineups since the 2022 season. He's worked with multiple collegiate coaching staffs regarding analytics and scouting, which has allowed him to understand the game on a deeper level. Braxton is also a contributor at Thunderous Intentions.

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