NBA Finals Betting Angles: Denver's Best Is Yet to Come

Action Network Senior NBA Writer Matt Moore breaks down what he saw in Game 1 and what it means for betting Game 2.

DENVER — It is entirely possible that the Miami Heat will play better, shoot better in Game 2 of the NBA Finals vs. the Denver Nuggets.

That’s definitely on the table after the Heat missed 26 3-pointers and took just 44% of their shots in the paint. Their offense was, at times, confusing in its passivity. Jimmy Butler took the blame post-game for not attacking more.

“We’ve got to attack the rim a lot more, myself included,” Butler said after a game in which he had just 13 points on 14 shots and routinely looped out of open driving space to flip a pass to a shooter — sometimes open, sometimes not.

So the Heat can play with more intensity and purpose. They can shoot better. They threw zone defense in the fourth quarter (both 1-2-2 and 3-2) and had Haywood Highsmith guard Jokic more, which resulted in an 83.3 Defensive Rating vs. Denver. All those things are promising.

They might be enough to win Game 2. Might. Let’s get to the key takeaways from Heat vs Nuggets Game 1.

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The Nuggets Didn’t Play Great. They Still Covered.

The problem is that for everything the Heat can do to improve, Denver can do just as much if not more.

Denver, a better shooting team all season and the second-best 3-point team in the playoffs behind Miami, shot worse than the Heat at 29.6%, including 0-for-8 in the fourth quarter.

Denver, an elite rebounding team, had just six second-chance opportunities, scoring just 7 points. (The Nuggets averaged 12.4 second-chance points per game in these playoffs.)

Bam Adebayo led the Heat in scoring with 26, dropping in floaters, push shots, and short jumpers off the short roll as the Nuggets kept their approach of putting two on the ball-handler in pick-and-roll.

Those are shots that Adebayo can make, but Denver will get better with helping down and then scrambling back out.

Adebayo can then kick out to shooters on the perimeter, but some of that is going to the variance that decides this series, and the Nuggets will get their timing down better as it goes on, just as the Boston Celtics did on Jimmy Butler’s post-up pump fakes before ultimately melting down.

Denver’s weakside rim protection broke down in this game, and truth be told, Jokic was a step behind where he’s been for most of these playoffs defensively. Maybe that doesn’t improve, as Adebayo presents such a problem with his athleticism and the Heat’s cutting style. But the Nuggets tend to figure the mechanisms out as a series goes on.

The Heat do as well, but the issues that they entered this game with were all on display.

The Nuggets had a 123.5 offensive rating through three quarters of this game and held the Heat to just 90 points per 100 possessions.

The Heat threw a lot into that fourth-quarter comeback attempt that fell short. It made sense. They’ve stolen games throughout the playoffs with one great quarter, watching teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Celtics just matriculate down their legs when things got tight.

The Nuggets, however, did not. Things got tight as their opponent made a run, and they handled it, covering the 9-point spread with a double-digit win. They wobbled, they missed some good looks, and the crowd got angsty as the Heat made it a single-digit game.

But ultimately, the Nuggets just responded with some Jokic possessions and it was enough.

The Heat also showed some things in that fourth quarter. You don’t want to give Jokic and the Nuggets tape. You don’t want to show your hand. They adapt extremely fast at this point, and that zone will likely be less successful going forward, not more so.

(Of note, the Nuggets still scored 1.16 points per possession vs. zone in Game 1, a blistering number.)

Kevin Love figures to play in Game 2, and Spoelstra will go further in his bag of tricks. He’ll try more things. But Jokic ultimately had answers for everything the Heat tried.

Adebayo is also going to be gassed. The Heat are currently asking him to guard the best player on the planet with an aggressive fronting scheme, take the most shots, manage the boards, and be the primary hub of offense in the second unit.

There are two days between most games, so maybe he can handle that, but the results of that are likely to get worse and not better. And the results weren’t good enough.

Adebayo led the Heat in scoring and was still a -6.

Heat backers will point to Duncan Robinson and Max Strus going 1-for-14 from 3, but Caleb Martin, Jimmy Butler, Gabe Vincent, Kyle Lowry, and Haywood Highsmith shot 50% from 3. The variance ran both hot and cold for the Heat.

Game 2 is in doubt, and while it’s not a must-win for Miami headed to South Beach in nearly a week’s time for Game 3, the Heat need it to put some pressure on the Nuggets.

But the reality is that Denver didn’t play anything close to an A-game and won by double digits. That spells trouble for Miami over the course of the next six games, shot variance or no shot variance. The bar Denver sets is extremely high, even for a team as tough as the Heat.

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The Market Has Overreacted to the Under

The total moved a full four points for Game 2, down to 214 from Game 1’s closing line of 218.5.

Game 1 was terribly slow at 91 possessions, a glacial pace. Both teams prioritized getting back in transition, cutting off driving lanes, and both teams handled their turnovers well.

That said, both teams were finding easy shots at the rim, and the pace likely picks up in Game 2 with more turnovers. This was a 92nd percentile game from Miami among all games this season in terms of lowest turnover rate and 78th percentile for Denver.

They’re likely to make more mistakes in Game 2, which could push this up.

Butler is likely to attack the rim more, drawing more fouls after the Heat only managed two free throws thanks to passivity and proclivity for jumpers long and short.

The over seems like a good counterplay after a market overreaction, but first-half unders have been gold in the last two playoffs.

The spread ticked up to Nuggets -9 in Game 2; not much of a reaction. Even with all the things I’ve illustrated on how Denver can improve, Miami seems like a solid bet to at least hang in Game 2. Teams that lost and failed to cover in Game 1 are 12-21 straight up but 18-14-1 ATS since 2003 and 5-4-1 since 2018.

The Nuggets have struggled in Game 2s after dominant Game 1 outings. The Phoenix Suns led by eight and the Los Angeles Lakers by 11 in their respective Game 2s after Game 1 losses to Denver, only to see the Nuggets win the game anyway. I expect a similar formula in Game 2. I’ll look for money to come in on Denver and then bet the Heat, but not on the moneyline.

More Notes from Game 1

  • Aaron Gordon took breakout Heat star Caleb Martin, put him in a trashcan, and hit it with a baseball bat a bunch of times under the rim. Martin was simply too small for Gordon. After a dominant first half that saw Gordon score 14 of his 16 points, Miami shifted Jimmy Butler onto him.
  • The problem with that strategy, of course, is that then Butler can’t harass Jamal Murray, who routinely got loose, and Butler had to battle Gordon for rebounds. The long game, again, favors Denver.
  • Kevin Love curiously did not play in Game 1, but given how poorly the Cody Zeller minutes went and how easily Jokic continues to score vs. Adebayo, don’t be surprised to see some Love minutes to help boost the offense. If you’re not going to slow the Nuggets down anyway, you have to hang with them, and Love helps with that.
  • Michael Porter Jr. had 13 rebounds vs. his prop of 7.5 and looks to have just an incredible size advantage in this series. That line will be one to watch.
  • Gabe Vincent had 19 points and 5 assists and was the one Heat player to comfortably get to his spots and his offense. Look for him on points and assists combined in Game 2, even if Butler responds with more free throws.