1. In the first games of both the New York and Boston series, Miami gave up 40-plus points in the paint. Almost immediately after those halftimes, they made their adjustments and cleaned things up in that area.
Similar story tonight against Denver, with the Nuggets scoring 32 in the paint on to of a 129.5 Offensive Rating to lead 59-42 at the break – only an 8-of-13 start from Bam Adebayo keeping things from getting out of hand – but the similarities ended at the numbers. Where the Knicks and Celtics were paint assaulting teams, driving relentlessly to get to the rim, very few of Denver’s early paint buckets came off a north-south dribble. Instead, it was all paint seals and post-ups, including six early makes at the cup from Aaron Gordon. Miami had missed some good looks from three at that point – though they were 5-of-10 from mid-range – but with Denver attempting double the number of shots in the restricted area, none of which came in transition, they were showcasing a stronger offensive foundation to that point. No huge surprise that maybe ethe best home team in the postseason, one that had plenty of time to rest and recuperate before the series began, was dictating the rhythm of the game, but the ball was certainly in Miami’s court at halftime to figure a few things out.
So of course Miami started the second half on an 8-0 run, because that’s what they’ve done all postseason. Get hit in the mouth, take a breath, and respond. But the Nuggets are not a team that gets rattled. They might miss shots for stretches, they just don’t lose their nerve. And so the lead hovered around 15, Miami still getting a ton of mileage out of their bread-and-butter Adebayo actions, Denver keeping pace with their two-man game between Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. A few Adebayo-rest minutes later, it was Denver, looking more comfortable than the HEAT would want, by 21 headed into the fourth.
Another 11-0 burst to open the final period, with Denver missing in the paint and Miami throwing out a small dose of zone, to bring it back to 10. Miami still refusing to go away, as always, suddenly getting hot from three thanks to Kyle Lowry. Then, more Jokic, back to 16 with seven to play. That could have been the game, but of course Miami wasn’t done, again finding their way to easy scores – a constant in all their postseason comeback bids – to bring it back to nine. But, again, Jokic (27 points on 12 shots to go with 14 assists) was there to close it out, 104-93 for Denver – the HEAT finishing with the better three-point night overall despite their earlier misses – as the home team throws the first hit. But now these teams know each other better, and it’s Miami’s turn to adjust.
2. The Knicks and Celtics want to go right through you, and there’s no better team at presenting immovable objects in front of unstoppable forces than Miami. The HEAT put up a force field around the paint and force you into distinct risk-reward assessment.
Denver gets to the rim almost as much, they just do it in a different way, beating you with passing and movement far more than they do off the dribble. That was the story of the first half, the ball not even finding Jokic a ton as Gordon posted up smaller players while the rest of the Nuggets took turns flashing or cutting into the paint for scores. Where the zone came in handy against the Knicks and Boston to help curtail the paint scores, it was only used in this one in the short stretches where Jokic hit the bench.
Miami still found a way to clean this up in the second half outside of Jokic, different as it was, but instead of tightening up on drives they had to put more bodies in the paint which meant more space on the perimeter for Denver’s shooters. That proved a dangerous proposition as shooting pushed Denver to their 20-point lead.
So, as Erik Spoelstra has almost always done in these playoffs, he went to the press – Haywood Highsmith, 18 points on 10 shots to his credit, had a nice backcourt pick-six – and the zone. Even if Denver might be the most difficult team to zone, that coverage does tend to give the proceedings a maximum make-or-miss look. A few misses helped Miami shrink the lead early in the fourth, but Jokic eventually found his way back into the paint. There’s no easy way to defend this team, but at least the paint scores slowed a bit as the Nuggets finished with just 46.
3. The good news on Miami’s side is that they were able to consistently get Bam Adebayo (26 points on 25 shots) to his spots with clean, relatively unencumbered passes. Running the same pick-and-roll actions they’ve been running all season, Adebayo got his catches and had plenty of space, not dealing with third and fourth defenders nearly as much as might have been expected given how the Nuggets had just defended the Los Angeles Lakers and Anthony Davis. By the end of the third quarter, Adebayo had 24 points on 23 shots – already matching his career-high in attempts. Without Adebayo, there would be no game.
This was a bit of a double-edged sword. Yes, Adebayo was getting plenty of space in the upper paint and mid-range – almost as much as he did against Milwaukee – but with Denver staying home of most shooters there weren’t many secondary playmaking opportunities. Either Adebayo made the two-pointer or there wasn’t much else there, with the overall efficiency of the actions bolstered by Adebayo’s creativity to get into the paint.
There was a lot of talk before the series about one of the choices teams having available to them is to single-cover Jokic and make him be a scorer while limiting his playmaking options. Denver, it seems, made a similar choice with Adebayo. He was up to the task, but this is something to keep an eye on – the fact that Adebayo still had five assists a huge credit to Miami’s movement and cutting even when Denver was trying to take away passing lanes.