DENVER — Game 1 was what Denver fans wanted after waiting 47 years for the NBA Finals to come to town: Nikola Jokić was dominating with a triple-double, Jamal Murray was attacking downhill, Denver played to its size advantage and got out to a lead that was up to 24 at one point, then coasted in for a 104-93 win and series lead.
It feels like Game 2 will be different.
The Heat had a rough Game 1 (at least for three quarters) and know they need to be more aggressive in Game 2. The Nuggets played what felt like an average game for them, although coach Michael Malone didn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think we played well in Game 1,” Malone said. “I watched that tape, and they were 5-of-16 on wide-open threes. As I told our players this morning, the fact that they got 16 wide-open threes is problematic.”
Here are four things worth watching, plus some betting advice from Vaughn Dalzell of NBC Sports Edge.
1) Can Miami force this game to be played in the mud?
As fans, we have been spoiled watching NBA Finals games over the last decade. There has been a lot of Stephen Curry and the Warriors with their off-ball movement, passing, shooting and beautiful game. There has been the GOAT-level brilliance of LeBron James (complete with his passing skills), the overwhelming athleticism of Giannis Antetokounmpo, There has been beautiful basketball played at the highest level.
If Game 2 is beautiful, the Heat are in trouble.
If Game 2 is free-flowing and up-tempo, it means Nikola Jokić is orchestrating another symphony. If the Nuggets’ off-ball-movement, transition game, passing and shooting run relatively unchecked, the Heat simply cannot keep pace.
The Heat need this to look like a 1990s rock-fight game against the Knicks. That is how Miami got here, by doing exactly that to Boston and Milwaukee, making those powerhouses play a grinding, defensive game. The Heat need to throw sand in the gears of the Nuggets’ offense and drag the game into the mud with their physicality and tenaciousness. Fewer jump shots, more shots at the rim and more trips to the free throw line (the Heat had just two free throws in Game 1).
Jokić only had to defend two shots at the rim in Game 1, the Heat can’t let that happen again.
“I think I’ve got to be more aggressive putting pressure on the rim,” Jimmy Butler said. “I think that makes everybody’s job a lot easier. They definitely follow suit whenever I’m aggressive on both sides of the ball. So I have to be the one to come out and kick that off the right way, which I will, and we’ll see where we end up.”
The challenge a more aggressive Heat team faces is part of what led to all the jumpers in Game 1 — Denver is just a physically bigger team. That size can deter trips to the rim. It can’t if the Heat are going to win this game and even the NBA Finals.
The Nuggets know what is coming. What appears to separate them from the teams the Heat beat before is Denver seems far less likely to get sucked into Miami’s game.
“You just can’t be complacent with this team. You can’t be lackadaisical,” Aaron Gordon said. “You can’t sleep on this team. This team has no quit. They will continue to fight through the entirety of the game. You’ve got to understand that about this team.”
2) Which team hits its 3s
. Much has been made of the Heat’s shooting struggles in Game 1` — Max Strus, Duncan Robinson and Caleb Martin combined to shoot 2-of-23 from 3. As Malone noted, the Heat had 16 open 3-pointers in Game 1 (using NBA tracking data) and hit just five of them. Miami bounced back in the fourth and hit 6-of-12 3-point attempts, but finished shooting an unimpressive 13-of-39, 33.3% from beyond the arc.
That’s better than the Nuggets.
Denver was 8-of-27 from 3, 29.6% in Game 1. Michael Porter Jr. was a dreadful 2-of-11.
“I thought I had great looks,” Porter Jr. said. “Ball felt pretty good coming out of my hands, but yeah, I can’t worry too much about percentages. They were good looks. I’ve got to keep shooting those, work on my shots on these couple days off. Hopefully some more fall next game.”
It’s simplistic but true — whichever team can find its 3-point stroke will win Game 2. Miami is in the Finals partly because of spectacular shotmaking, particularly from their role players, throughout the postseason. A regression now dooms them.
Both coaches told their shooters not to hold back.
“Let it fly. Ignite. Once they see two go down, it could be three, it could turn into six just like that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, snapping his fingers. “As long as we are getting those clean looks, that’s what matters.”
3) Vaughn Dalzell’s betting recommendations
Over 214.5: The Under hit in Game 1 thanks to a 96-point second-half, but more importantly, an NBA Finals record low two free-throw attempts from the Miami Heat. Dating back to 2002-03, Game 2’s are 43-25-1 (63.2%) to the over when Game 1 went under the total. With both teams struggling from three and Miami expected to be more aggressive, the over 214.5 is a good value play, especially since Game 1’s total was 219.5.
Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. props: With Denver having so many weapons, take a look at Nikola Jokic’s triple-double prop and Michael Porter Jr.’s three-point props. Jokic triple-doubled in Game 1, giving him a triple-double in six of the last seven games. With Jokic hunting for Finals MVP, take a look at Jokc’s triple-double prop yet again. Porter Jr. struggled from deep in Game 1, knocking down two three-pointers on 11 attempts. MPJ has now attempted at least 10 three-pointers in three-straight games and six or more in eight of the past nine. MPJ’s Over 2.5 made three-pointers also has value in Game 2.
(Check out more from Dalzell and the team at NBC Sports Edge.)
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