MIAMI — That looked like the Denver team that rolled through the West. The one that — on paper — Miami would have trouble matching up with.
The Nuggets’ best game of the Finals and maybe their best of the playoffs, was led by Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray becoming the first teammates in any game to have 30+ triple-doubles.
“By far their greatest performance as a duo in their seven years together,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
In our takeaways, we will focus on things other than Jokić and Murray’s greatness to start, but make no mistake, their dominance was the foundation on which this Nuggets win was built. Their play sparked Denver to a 109-94 win on the road to take a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals. Game 4 is Friday night in Miami.
Here are three takeaways from the Nuggets’ Game 3 win.
1) Denver’s size advantage was too much
The Heat knew it was coming and couldn’t do anything about it.
“I think that was their objective, to get in the paint, get inside and use their size and physicality,” Kyle Lowry said. “And, yeah, that’s what they did tonight.”
“They just pummeled us in the paint,” Erik Spoelstra added. “They didn’t really have to shoot threes. They had, whatever, 60 [points] in the paint. They probably shot over 65% in the paint at the rim there [69% in the restricted area]. Wasn’t a need to space the floor. We didn’t offer much resistance.”
There’s an old basketball saying that tall and good beats small and good. That was in evidence on both ends of the floor on Wednesday night in Miami.
On offense, the Nuggets’ big adjustment was they changed the screening angles for Murray and that — combined with a determination on his part to get downhill at the rim — changed the game. Behind Murray the Nuggets scored 20 of its first 24 points in the paint. As noted above, the Nuggets went on to get 60 points in the paint.
Size showed on the Nuggets defense in the Heat shooting 38.2% within eight feet of the basket. While some of that had to do with better low-man help rotations from the Nuggets, their size with the guys making those rotations flummoxed the Heat.
“Yes, you do have to credit their size and everything like that, but we have proven that we can finish in the paint when we’re at our best,” Spoelstra said. They didn’t in Game 3 and had better find a way to do it in Game 4.
2) Nuggets’ defense was dialed in
This was The Nuggets’ best defensive game of the series. But don’t take my word for it, just ask their coach, Michael Malone.
“I thought our defense was fantastic tonight,” he said. “You hold that team to 94 points, 37 [percent] from the field, only 11 threes, that really helped us out tonight. The defending and rebounding at a high level.”
As Malone noted, the Nuggets held Denver to 37% shooting, or look at it this way, they held the Heat to a 102.2 offensive rating (12.8 below their playoff average).
Or, check out this stat from The Athletic’s Law Murray: The Heat were 17-of-46 (37%) on shots outside the paint, but they were also 17-of-46 on shots in the paint.
After Malone called out the Nuggets — publicly and privately — for their mental lapses on defense in Game 2, his team came out much sharper in Game 3. That showed in a couple of places, but first and foremost with effort and activity level — Denver was much more aggressive. They were taking swipes at the ball when Miami players would catch it, never letting them get comfortable.
The other area the Nuggets cleaned up was on low-man help rotations when Jokić had to show out on a pick. The Heat have thrived on little pocket passes to Bam Adebayo in this series, but the rotations from the Nuggets took the easy buckets away on those as players got in front of him. The confidence in his back line allowed Jokić to play out a little higher at points.
It’s on Spoelstra to come up with some counters, although what Miami needs to do in Game 4 doesn’t start with the coaching staff.
3) Butler, Adebayo need to be able to hang with Jokić, Murray
Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo have to be better. It’s that simple.
They don’t have to put up matching 30-point triple-doubles, but they can’t shoot a combined 18-of-45 (40%) with seven assists. They can’t combine to shoot 10-of-30 in the paint. They have to be more efficient and come close to matching Jokić and Murray on the night to have a chance.
“We didn’t play our best tonight,” Butler said of the Heat, sitting next to Adebayo in the press conference. “I feel like we just got to come out with more energy and effort, and that’s correctible. That’s on us as a group. No X’s and O’s can fix that.”
The Heat stars got outplayed on both ends. While their shooting woes are mentioned above, they were also the primary defenders on the Murray/Jokick pick-and-roll and they didn’t stop that either. Even in the second half when the Heat started blitzing the ball handler and consistently bringing a third defender early into the action, it didn’t matter, the Nuggets made the read and the play.
I don’t know. We’re going to get back to the film and figure it out, because we do have to be better guarding both of those guys,” Butler said. “One is the ball-hander and one is the guy that is setting the screen and popping and rolling. It’s not an easy task to do, but if we want to win, we are going to have to figure it out.”
Spoelstra thinks maybe the missed shots on the offensive end got in his team’s heads and impacted Miami’s defense.
“It felt like at times, some of those missed shots at the rim or in the paint, the makeable shots that we’ve made the last several months or weeks, that affected a little bit of our, whatever, going down the other end,” Spoelstra said. “And that hasn’t happened a lot.”
In addition to those two, the Heat roll players have to hit their 3-pointers, something they did in Game 2 and did not in Game 3. Max Strus was 1-of-4 from beyond the arc, Gabe Vincent 1-of-6, and as a team Miami was 11-of-35 (31.4%). The Heat’s 3-point shooting has been their bellwether all playoffs, and if they are going to hang with this Nuggets offense they have to knock those down at a better than 40% rate.
The one bright spot for the Heat was in garbage time, Udonis Haslem, at age 43, became the oldest player to appear in an NBA Finals game ever. He deserves that. Although you know he’d trade it for a win in a heartbeat.
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