Why Nikola Jokic & the Denver Nuggets’ Offense Pose Serious Problems for Miami’s Zone & Man Defense: A Deep Dive into the 2023 NBA Finals

Despite being a play-in team that ranked 25th in Offensive Rating, the Miami Heat have punched their ticket to the NBA Finals. Along the way, they have eliminated the championship favorites Milwaukee Bucks, the feisty New York Knicks, and the Boston Celtics, who owned the best regular season Net Rating. It’s one of the most impressive postseason runs in NBA history. Miami relied on their defense to get to this point, but can they hold up against this superb Denver Nuggets offense? Or are the mismatches too significant? Check out below for a deep dive into how Denver poses problems for Miami’s defense.

*All clips and images via NBA.com

Denver Nuggets Offense vs Miami Heat Zone Defense 

Teams rarely play zone defense, especially during the playoffs. Miami is the exception though; they have run a 2-3 zone defense for years and found extraordinary success. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo form arguably the smartest defensive duo in the NBA and possess the ability to guard numerous positions at an elite level. Miami has surrounded them with gritty, disciplined defenders that have clawed their way to be in this position. As a result, the Heat often execute flawless rotations, and no player takes a defensive possession off. 

The image below displays Miami’s setup and goals. 

Miami Heat Zone Setup

The top two form a wall and negate any potential driving lanes down the middle. They have more lateral freedom than a man defender because the second guard can slide to cover up the middle. It’s difficult for a Boston screener to obstruct them because the ball handler won’t be able to beat them around the edge – that’s the benefit of this two-headed setup. The other three defenders each sit in the gaps between two Boston players. Therefore, they are ready to easily rotate and protect the strong side should Boston swing the ball to the wing. 

How did this steer the possession? Malcolm Brogdon passed to Derrick White, which caused Caleb Martin and Kyle Lowry to each slide to their left and deter a shot. White has no options, so he passes back to Brogdon, who takes a deep contested three. 

Because Miami’s perimeter defenders are difficult to beat off the dribble, the Celtics struggled to penetrate the paint. Their bigs couldn’t aid the ball handlers because Al Horford sat at the three-point line while Robert Williams III rolled right into the heart of the zone, which was heavily protected. In order to consistently crack this zone, Boston needed a big playmaking center that could operate from a variety of locations and score in isolation. 

Enter Nikola Jokic – Miami’s ultimate nightmare. The Heat don’t roster a gargantuan center, but they navigate this issue because Adebayo plays above his size. However, Jokic is 2 inches taller, 30 pounds heavier, and more than willing to bully smaller opponents. It’s one of the few instances where even Adebayo can’t fully hold his ground. Plus, if any Heat defender besides Adebayo marks Jokic, then the Heat are absolutely forced to send help or concede an easy basket, such as the following. 

Defenders haven’t found success trying to front Jokic either because of his size, positioning, and Denver’s ability to throw a clean entry pass. If Miami sends a quick double, then Jokic passes before they can even blink. 

In the clip below, Miami is in their 2-3 zone, and Denver responds by isolating Jokic on the wing. By attacking via the wing instead of the top of the key, Denver avoids the tight formation of the two guards up top. 

Jokic is too big for the Heat, and he slides right by Jimmy Butler. The Heat’s zone can’t collapse because three Denver shooters lurk on the three-point line, and Jokic will find any of them for an open three. Jokic fakes the pass to ensure Strus lunges to the three-point line. Adebayo finds himself in an awkward spot because he has to step up to contest Jokic, but Aaron Gordon is a cutting freight train. The Heat can’t stop all of the threats, and Gordon converts the lob. 

That’s Miami’s problem in a nutshell; the Nuggets completely stretch out the floor with their shooters while Gordon and Jokic place an enormous amount of stress around the basket. Therefore, the Nuggets have massive pressure points on every area of the court, and the ball moves faster than the defender. It’s simply too much for a defense to handle. 

Here’s another instance where Denver isolates Jokic near the top of the key and allows him to back down the smaller defender. Haywood Highsmith leaves the corner to double Jokic, which initiates a chain reaction. 

Once Highsmith rushes to the rescue, Max Strus picks up Highsmith’s man: an open Michael Porter Jr (41.4 3PT%). Seeing this, Christian Braun (in the dunker’s spot) cuts to the basket to threaten a dunk while Jeff Green slides towards the top of the key for a wide open catch-and-shoot three. This action forces Adebayo to stop Braun and Butler to follow Green. The result? A wide open corner attempt for Bruce Brown.

Jokic Exploiting Double

In addition to isolating him, Denver can station Jokic inside the zone too and allow him to orchestrate from there. His on-ball gravity draws defenders, and his unselfish passing punishes them. 

Jokic on the free throw line in particular poses issues for Miami because he’s surrounded by tantalizing options. 

Overall, his combination of size, all-time playmaking, and ability to score from anywhere crown him a zone buster. He warps the defense at will, and the parts around him are in a perfect situation to capitalize because Denver rosters excellent three-point shooters and cutters. It’s no surprise that Denver is the most efficient offense against zone defense. 

Denver Nuggets Offense vs Miami Heat Man Defense 

While Miami will still trot out their infamous zone defense, they likely shift to a higher frequency of man defense. It’s essential for Adebayo to guard Jokic at all times, and that’s not possible in a zone. Plus, Jokic is too smart and too skilled for a zone to befuddle him for long before he dissects it. 

When the Heat play man defense, the Nuggets will respond by calling for dribble handoffs and pick and rolls featuring the Jokic-Murray duo. Miami often had Adebayo switch on the high pick and roll against Boston for two reasons: he can thrive defending wings on the perimeter, and Boston’s bigs couldn’t exploit the subsequent mismatch. 

Against Denver though, a designed switch would be unwise because Jokic will brutally exploit any defender not named Adebayo. He can seal his man on the elbow and either utilize a post up to worm his way inside or pass to the open shooter if Miami doubles. This reality limits Miami’s defensive resources, which means another one of their preferred options (drop coverage) will likely be more prevalent. Since Jokic’s crushing screens create plenty of separation for the ball handler, drop coverage is desirable here too. It allows Adebayo to contain the drive and keeps him closer to the paint, where his value rises. However, Jokic’s shooting touch is an extremely dangerous counter because he can pop instead of rolling to the rim. 

His range extends to the three-point line, which even further disincentivizes drop coverage. Jokic shot 38.3 3PT% on 2.2 attempts per game during the regular season, and that’s spiked to 47.4 3PT% on 3.8 attempts per game for the playoffs. 

If the Heat try to counter by sending another defender to stop the Jokic three, then he can pump fake into a drive or swing the ball for a three. 

As a result, Miami cannot afford to have Adebayo play drop coverage and provide aid against the ball handler. He must stick closely to Jokic at all times, which opens up driving lanes for Denver. The following clip features a Murray-Jokic dribble handoff where Adebayo can’t fully commit to stopping Murray because of the Jokic spot up threat – this leaves room for a Murray layup. 

The next clip displays Adebayo respecting Jokic’s shot, and Denver subsequently knifing their way inside. The Heat’s defense nicely collapsed here, although the Nuggets managed to create a decent shot. 

This action also featured Bones Hyland and Vlatko Cancar – replace them with Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon and Denver acquires an even better shot. Murray wouldn’t miss that pass to the corner and Gordon would have positioned himself better for the vertical threat. 

In addition to the pick and roll or dribble handoffs, the Nuggets found success against Miami this season by screening for Jokic to create space. In the clip below, Denver utilizes Jokic as a screener to get Adebayo to think the action will be to his right. Immediately, Braun screens for Jokic, who finds space before dumping the ball to a cutting Cancar. 

Finally, Denver can utilize pindown screens to find space for Jokic, who either uses his momentum to get to the basket or kick it out for three. 

Jokic’s tricks are on full display in this next clip. He knows the pindown is coming and that Adebayo’s back is to the basketball. Therefore, he fakes a lob catch to get Adebayo in the air, which buys him more time. Miami defends well, so Denver immediately switches into a successful dribble handoff. 

Matchup Takeaways

Overall, this well-oiled Nuggets offense possesses the personnel to completely exploit Miami’s defense. Jokic’s scoring threat neutralizes a number of defensive strategies for the Heat, and his passing makes it impossible for Miami to consistently double him. Porter Jr, Caldwell-Pope, Brown, and Murray stretch out the defense laterally, while Gordon’s aerial threat stretches it vertically. Plus, Miami must also deal with Jamal Murray’s scorching off-the-dribble scoring and ability to penetrate the paint. 

Across two matchups this season, Jokic was 20/29 from the field with 20 assists compared to 3 turnovers. Miami’s usually disruptive defense can’t even rely on their normal number of turnovers because Jokic is exceptional at protecting the ball. 

The Heat have been doubted all postseason and overcome every obstacle. Is this series a bridge too far though? Based on Denver’s recent play and roster strengths, the Heat may not find the defensive success they are accustomed to achieving. 

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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