DENVER — It was a full-throated celebration inside Ball Arena as a fan base that waited 47 years for this moment was going to be heard.
It was a full-throated celebration in the hallway outside the Nuggets locker room after Game 1 as the players let loose some joy after a big win.
Game 1 was everything the Nuggets could have wanted with a 104-93 victory, and the game was not as close as the final score suggested (even if it got a little interesting in the fourth). The Nuggets lead the NBA Finals 1-0 over the Miami Heat with Game 2 Sunday in Denver.
Here are three takeaways from Game 1.
1) Nuggets’ size early, poise under pressure late earned them win
Before the series started, one of the big questions was how the smallish Heat would deal with the size across the board of the Nuggets.
To start Game 1, they couldn’t — the Nuggets scored 18 of their first 24 points in the paint. Denver used its size advantage to punish every switch that gave it a matchup advantage. Aaron Gordon was at the forefront of that, overwhelming Gabe Vincent among others on his way to 12 first quarter points (with none of his made shots being rather than six feet from the rim).
“I definitely think they came out with a lot of physicality, and we have to be able to match that,” the Heat’s Jimmy Butler said.
Leaning into that size advantage was all part of the plan.
“Most definitely. You’ve got to play to your advantages at this time of year and all the time,” Gordon said. “I was just looking to play to my advantages.”
This was not some new wrinkle the Nuggets put in just for the Finals or the Heat, this is how they beat the Timberwolves, Suns and Lakers all postseason.
“No, those are sets. We’re making reads,” Jamal Murray said. “Like I said, we’re just making reads. If I’m not open, somebody else is open if I cut.”
“If you make the right read or make the right cut or set the right screen, you’re going to be open, and the ball moves, the ball finds the open man,” Gordon added. “The open man is the right play, and that’s how we play the game, and it’s a fun way to play.”
That size advantage got the Heat a lead early that they grew to 21 by the end of the third quarter. But then the Heat made an 11-0 run to start the fourth, and for Heat fans things started to look familiar — they had made big comebacks with a dominant quarter all playoffs.
The difference was when the Heat made these kinds of runs against the Bucks and Celtics, those teams became rattled and made mistakes. They helped fuel the Heat runs.
Not the Nuggets.
They have poise and Nikola Jokić — they just throw the ball to him and get a good shot and a bucket. The Nuggets don’t beat themselves, they just keep scoring. Miami got the lead down to nine for a possession, but that was as close as it ever got. The game was never in doubt and the message was sent to the Heat — there will be no dramatic comebacks in this building.
2) Miami has to be more aggressive, and they know it
The shotmaking that fueled Miami’s run past the two teams with the best records in the NBA was nowhere to be seen in Denver. Particularly in the first half. The Heat were 4-of-17 from 3 — led by Max Strus being 0-of-7 — and shot 37.5% as a team.
More than just missing open shots, the Heat settled for jumpers in the face of the length of the Nuggets.
“We shot a lot of jumpshots, myself probably leading that pack, instead of putting pressure on the rim, getting layups, getting to the free throw line,” Jimmy Butler said. “When you look at it during the game, they all look like the right shots. And I’m not saying that we can’t as a team make those, but got to get more layups, got to get more free throws…
“But that’s it as a whole. We’ve got to attack the rim a lot more, myself included.”
The evidence of the Heat settling for jumpers, they had just two free throws all game. As a team. That clearly bothered Bam Adebayo postgame, who was careful not to say something that would earn him a fine from the league, but his frustration with not getting calls was clear. And maybe he could have gotten a couple more, but he was one of the guys taking jumpers rather than attacking.
More than settling for jumpers, the Heat kept passing up open looks in search of the perfect look, when they just needed to take the good and knock the shot down. They seemed to overthink their half-court offense.
The one Heat player putting up numbers was Adebayo, who finished with a team-high 26 points, but needed 25 shots to get there. He took what the defense gave him, which was 10-15 foot jumpers and floaters, and he put up 14 of those — but with that he was not pressuring the rim. While he racked up points the Nuggets will live with those shots.
“If you’re giving up tough mid-range contested twos, that’s better than them getting a lot of open threes,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Obviously, we can do a better job of contesting some of those mid-range shots that Bam was getting, and I think we have to mix up our levels.”
3) There is no answer for Nikola Jokić, but can Heat limit him?
It was another master class from Jokić, right from the opening tip. He came out dishing the ball and carving up the Heat defense — Jokić only took one shot in the first quarter (a putback dunk in the final minute) and three shots for the half. But he had six first-quarter assists as Gordon was dunking inside, some 3-pointers fell, and the Nuggets were up 29-20 after one, and by 17 at the half.
“That’s just the way he plays the game,” Jamal Murray said. “If the team is rolling, that’s just how you play basketball. If everybody else is scoring, then there’s no need to force it. He’s a great passer, great facilitator. They’re digging, they’re doubling, they’re trying not to let him score.”
The Heat had talked about making Jokić more of a scorer, staying home with shooters and trying to take away his passes. It’s one thing to have that plan, it’s another to deal with the reality of player and ball movement Jokić orchestrates. Throw in the unstoppable Jokic/Murray pick-and-roll — Murray finished with 26 points and 10 assists — and even a good defense can look bad.
“Just how he plays, how the game comes to him, the way they were playing him — he was just passing,” Michael Porter Jr. said of Jokić. “Jamal had it going. Aaron had it going. And then to still end up with that triple-double just shows how special he is.”
Jokić finished with a triple-double of 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds.
The Heat are finding what so many teams have found before them — there is no answer to Jokić. Switch the screen and put a small on him and Jokić just backs him down in the post and gets an easy bucket (he backed down Cody Zeller that way, too). Double Jokić and he finds the open shooter. Roll out a zone and cutters slash to the rim, or a shooter knocks down a shot over the top of it all.
Miami had a little success in the fourth with Haywood Highsmith on Jokić. The Heat used Highsmith sort of the way the Lakers used Rui Hachimura to try and bother Jokić and freeing up Adebayo to play off Gordon and be more of a free safety.
Except, that didn’t work well for the Lakers for the rest of the series. Jokić and the Nuggets figured it out. Erik Spoelstra tipped his hand with some adjustments as he tried things in the fourth, but that gives the Nuggets a couple of days to prepare for it before Sunday’s Game 2.
That’s when the Nuggets will pose the Jokić question to the Heat again. There is no great answer, but the Heat need to find a better one.
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