Three Things We Learned, Cavaliers/Warriors edition: What can we take away from Monday to NBA Finals?

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The NBA goes big on Martin Luther King Jr. day — as they should — but if you missed the action because you were busy counting to 100,000 for no reason, we’ve got you covered with the key takeaways from the biggest game on the schedule.

And we’re doubling our usual three things we learned to six for a day.

Six things from Warriors’ thrashing of Cavaliers that could play out in NBA Finals.
 Nothing that happens in the regular season guarantees anything come the NBA playoffs, let alone the Finals. Last season’s 73-win Warriors were just the latest in a long line of teams to prove that. Which means we need to be careful reading much into Golden State’s thrashing of Cleveland on Martin Luther King Jr. day. The Finals are a little less than six months away — both of these teams will be different by then (the Cavaliers hope to have a healthy J.R. Smith and Kevin Love by then, for example).  Remember, in January one year ago the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and how did the following Finals turn out?

However, when these teams meet some strategies are tested, little things in the game that we could see — or teams will need to at least account for — come the Finals meeting we all expect. Here are six things from Monday’s game that could well play out in June in the NBA Finals.

1) In the four straight wins the Cavaliers had in this series prior to Monday, they were very aggressive in defending Stephen Curry — they trapped him off picks, were physical, tried to pressure him into decisions to give up the ball, then when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams the Cavaliers help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. All of that made Curry passive — remember the guy floating on the perimeter taking just 11 shots on Christmas Day?

On Monday night Curry took that pressure in stride, attacked Kyrie Irving from the opening tip (remember Curry’s first possession he blew right by him), used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. In the first half, Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers. For the game Curry had 20 shots. If he can match that, or even come close, in the Finals, the Cavs are going to struggle to slow this offense down. Like every mortal team has.

2) In January 2016 the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and that was a critical step in the Cavaliers deciding they needed to let David Blatt go, hire Tyronn Lue, and make changes that put them on Golden State’s level. With Monday’s loss, one thing that was evident was the depth of playmaking options the Warriors have and how that can be difficult to guard. Cleveland has two playmakers right now, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Cavs’ GM David Griffin has talked about wanting to add playmakers, LeBron has called for a backup point guard, but it’s clear whatever position they could use to add another playmaker or two heading into the trade deadline.

3) Can Kevin Durant guard LeBron? Chris Haynes of ESPN with an interesting stat:

The Cavaliers were on the last night of a six-game, 12-day road trip — they were not at their best. LeBron clearly wasn’t. However, if KD can even do a reasonable job on LeBron — or can switch on to him without getting torched — the Warriors will be a lot more comfortable and have more options on defense.

4) How did Warriors handle Kyle Korver? They went right at him and made him play defense, which has never been a strong suit (to put it kindly). The Warriors have enough playmakers that whoever Korver was guarding just went at him, and it worked — particularly during the stretch that saw the Warriors first push their lead north of 20. Korver didn’t have a great shooting night, by June he likely is far more comfortable, but if the Warriors can expose him on the other end it will be hard to keep Korver on the court for extended periods.

5) When JaVale McGee checked in for the Warriors, Tyronn Lue countered with Channing Frye. JaVale is not a strong defender, doesn’t step out away from the basket if he can help it, and the Cavs saw an advantage. JaVale’s offense covered that in this game scoring inside, but it’s something to watch.

6) DeAndre Liggins is a good defender, but he’s more focused on-ball than off, and in the fourth quarter Klay Thompson torched him a few times making Liggins chase him off screens away from the ball. You can be sure Steve Kerr noticed and filed that away.

Miami has thrived in adversity all playoffs. They have plenty of it in Game 4.

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MIAMI — Throughout the Heat’s playoff run, Erik Spoelstra has been confiding in and getting encouragement from another Miami coach — and it’s not Pat Riley.

Dolphins’ coach Mike McDaniel and Spoelstra have become friends.

“We’ve been texting back and forth,” Spoelstra said. “We share very similar thoughts about finding strength in adversity and using those as lessons to help you grow.”

Through that prism, the Heat have a real growth opportunity Friday night.

Miami trails Denver 2-1 in the NBA Finals heading into Game 4, and while that game is not technically must win for the Heat, it is in practice.

Getting that win means Miami finding some way to slow the Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray two-man game. Which is what every team has tried to do all playoffs long with no success, but Game 3 was the peak of their two-man game. The Nuggets stars ran 32 pick-and-rolls in Game 3, and those plays were the heart of both getting a 30+ point triple-double — the first teammates ever to have a 30+ point triple-double in any NBA game, ever. Murray and Jokić played 40 minutes together in Game 2 and the Nuggets were +14 in those minutes (in a game they won by 15).

“I mean, the Murray/Jokic two-man game is a pretty hard action to stop,” Haywood Highsmith said. “But we got great defensive players, got some of the great two-way players in this game, Jimmy [Butler] and Bam [Adebayo], so we’re gonna figure it out. We got a lot of different bodies we can throw at Murray as well.”

That might be the best adjustment the Heat can make —throw a lot of bodies at it, sell out to stop the Murray/Jokic two-man game and dare any other Nugget to beat them. Force them to diversify the offense. Denver coach Mike Malone has been able to lean into defensive lineups because Murray and Jokić provide enough offense, it’s time for the Heat to challenge that practice.

“Whatever you do, you just can’t do it all the time,” Spoelstra said of defending the Nuggets duo. “There’s no absolutes when you get to this level. It’s the highest level of competition. You’re getting the highest level of execution. Understanding what they’re trying to get to, and we try to get them out of their comfort zones as much as possible.

“The first half, they really got to that two-man action quite a bit. They were getting a lot of traction, so they didn’t need to go to any other part of their playbook.”

The Heat need to make adjustments, too.

One adjustment they will not make is playing Tyler Herro, he has been officially ruled out for Game 4. Herro went through a brief part of the fake practice/shootaround in front of the media on Thursday, but didn’t speak to the press. Spoelstra said Herro has not yet been cleared for a game, and while there were not a lot of details it didn’t sound like Herro was all that close.

Another thing the Heat need to do is less adjustment and more effort and luck — they simply have to shoot better.

Denver’s size bothered the Heat in the paint and Miami shot just 38.2% within eight feet of the basket. The Heat also got up 35 attempts from 3 but only hit 31.4% of that. Credit Denver’s size in the paint and they’re staying home with shooters for some of that, but Miami can — and Friday night must — do better.

Which brings up an interesting question: This deep into a playoff series, is it more about strategic adjustments, or effort and just playing better?

“I think it’s a little bit of both,” Highsmith said. “It’s definitely some things we can adjust on, and then it’s also about a little bit more effort and just doing more. You always need more, always can do more… we definitely have to make some adjustments on both ends of the floor, but you know, we’ll figure it out.”

Whatever Miami does defensively, Denver will score, they have an elite offense led by a two-time MVP in Jokić. If the Heat are going to even this series headed back to the Rocky Mountains, they must find more offense.

“I mean, they, they have a really good defensive scheme. They have good defensive players,” Duncan Robinson said. “You know, for us offensively, it’s going to be about creating advantages and really putting pressure on their schemes and their players to scramble and kind of get them a motion and a lot of that happens when we’re moving the ball attacking, playing to our identity.

“We had stretches last night, and definitely stretches in this series where we’ve done it. And, we’ve definitely had stretches where we haven’t gotten to that as much as we’d like to, so we’ll continue to work through it.”

They have to work through it fast because time is running out.

Bucks’ Middleton reportedly has knee scoped, should be ready for camp

2023 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Miami Heat
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The Bucks said an MRI of Khris Middleton‘s knee just before the start of the playoffs was clean even if his play made observers question that news.

Turns out, maybe it wasn’t totally clean.

Middleton had his knee scoped after the playoffs, but he will return to his offseason training in July, reports Shams Charania and Eric Nehm of The Athletic.

The report said the surgery was to clean up “an issue that plagued him this past season,” and it was scheduled before the Bucks’ playoff run began. So, they knew, as did most anyone who watched Middleton and didn’t see the same burst as he had in the past, especially on the defensive end. He looked a step slow.

This minor surgery shouldn’t change Middleton’s or the Bucks’ off-season plans. Whatever those may be. Middleton has a $40.4 million player option, something he reportedly is considering opting out of to re-sign a longer deal with Milwaukee — or elsewhere — likely at a lower per-season salary but with more total dollars (the team may also reach an extension with him). At age 31, Middleton may want the security of years.

Milwaukee needs Middleton and his shot creation, plus his two-way play, if they are going to compete at the highest levels. However, they need the healthy Middleton who was an All-Star and All-NBA player, not the one that only played in 33 games last season due to wrist surgery and knee issues.

It will be an interesting offseason in Milwaukee with 35-year-old Brook Lopez a free agent and Jrue Holiday becoming extension eligible in the fall. The Bucks had the best record in the NBA last season, but the roster is getting old and expensive fast, and a pivot is coming. At some point. But maybe not this summer.

Nuggets’ Christian Braun on verge of history, NCAA and NBA titles in consecutive years

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MIAMI — Only four players have ever done it: Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Henry Bibby and Billy Thompson.

Christian Braun could become the fifth player to win an NCAA title and an NBA championship in back-to-back seasons.

Last season he was the second-leading scorer on the Kansas Jayhawk team that won the NCAA tournament, with Braun scoring 12 points and grabbing 12 boards in the title game against North Carolina.

Braun isn’t just riding the Denver bench to his piece of history, he scored a critical 15 points in Game 3 to spark the Nuggets win. Braun scored 11 points in a stretch at the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth when Denver pushed its lead to 21, then held off the early fourth quarter charge from Miami that had defined the Finals for two games.

Braun’s cuts to the rim — not to mention his steal and dunk — were things of beauty.

“I told him, you won us the game…” Nikola Jokić said of Braun (which was generous considering Jokic’s 32-21-10 triple-double). “He won us the game, and he was really good tonight.”

“Tonight, man, I could just feel the confidence kind of oozing out of him,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “The physical, aggressive drives, making plays for guys against their zone. It was really fun to watch a young man step up like the way Christian did tonight.”

Denver drafted Braun with the No. 21 pick and it was a perfect fit for the Kansas native (who led his high school team, Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, to three state titles). Braun was drafted onto a contending team and was given a clearly defined role by Malone. Braun took that and earned his minutes with hustle and defense all season long, and sometimes the points come with that.

“Those guys make it really easy,” Braun said of playing with Jokić and Jamal Murray. “Playing with those guys, they make the right play every time. My job is just to be ready when my name is called…

“Like I said, my job is not very hard; I’ve just got to come in, play with energy, and they find me in the right spots on offense and the defense just give effort. So those guys have trusted me all year and put me in the right spots and my job is to deliver.”

Braun was ready to deliver and it showed.

If he and the Nuggets can deliver a couple more wins, he will be part of a select group in history.

Three things to know from Denver dominating both ends, taking 2-1 series lead

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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.