Matt Brooks
Writer & Digital Content Specialist

If there was one thing that stood out from Denver's Game 1 NBA Finals victory, it's that the Miami HEAT had zero answers for the Nuggets' offense.

That doesn't totally add up at first glance. Denver scored just 104 points against Miami, well below the 115.6 points they're averaging in the postseason. Denver made just 29.6 percent of their looks from deep, just the second time all postseason they shot below 30 percent from three.

Not to mention, Denver made just 33.3 percent of their "wide-open" three-pointers in Game 1, which the NBA defines as when a defender is 6+ feet away from the offensive player shooting the basketball. Denver's been making their wide-open threes at a 37.7 percent clip in the postseason.

The Nuggets also shot just 30 percent on their "open" threes, which is when a defender is 4-to-6 feet away according to NBA stats. They've been knocking down open threes at 39.5 percent accuracy in the playoffs.

In essence, Denver missed a bunch of shots they normally make and still won.

But it goes deeper than that.

Denver was able to generate good looks against practically every style of defensive coverage that the mad scientist, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra, cooked up.

The HEAT had zero answers for Denver's two-man game between Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray. Zero. Murray and Jokić accounted for 90 of Denver's 104 points through scoring and passing, and the two of them linked up repeatedly in Game 1 to put Miami's defense in a tizzy.

Murray finished with 26 points and a playoff-high 10 assists. Jokić recorded his ninth triple-double of the 2023 postseason with 27 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds. In their NBA Finals debuts, Denver's star duo appeared just as unstoppable as ever.

Gabe Vincent got the Murray defensive matchup more than any other HEAT player, and Bam Adebayo was tasked with fending off Jokić. Here's the issue; both Jokić and Murray are significantly taller and stronger than both players. When Jokić and Murray intertwined in the pick-and-roll, it gave them even more of an opportunity to rise up over the top of their smaller defenders.

Miami elected to defend Denver's pick-and-roll between its best two players in a "drop coverage." When Jokić would set a screen for Murray, Adebayo camped out in the painted area instead of following his man to the level of the screen. Murray's defender, meanwhile, would chase over the top of the screen in pursuit.

Here's a screenshot of what that looks like from Game 1.

Adebayo in a drop coverage with Martin chasing Murray over the top of Jokić's screen

So, why did Miami elect to go with this specific style of defensive coverage against Murray and Jokić's two-man actions in Game 1?

Ideally, playing Adebayo in a drop coverage could do a couple of things. One, it could stop Murray from driving to the rim and buy his man (here, Caleb Martin) time to get back into the play. It could also halt Jokić should he roll to the rim. Maybe most importantly, it could keep Miami out of disadvantageous matchups that might occur from switching on pick-and-rolls.

When Miami did elect to switch—with Adebayo moving away from Jokić and onto Murray—Denver feasted. Jokić felt zero resistance from Haywood Highsmith on this post-up when Miami gave Denver the switch on the pick-and-roll.

Still, dropping against Denver's pick-and-rolls between Murray and Jokić wasn't a fruitful endeavor, either.

Murray was able to get to his pull-up jumper on numerous occasions while his defender, Vincent in both clips below, attempted to pursue from behind. Denver also had Jokić "pop" behind the three-point line instead of rolling to the rim against Adebayo in the drop coverage. Even when Murray dished the ball to Jokić and Adebayo was in good position to contest, Jokić was just too big and too strong for Miami's starting center and softly lofted shots over the top of his smaller assignment.

Now, one thing to note in these clips is Denver's spacing. Here's an example just before Jokić hit the wide-open pick-and-pop three-pointer against Miami's dropping defense.

Notice the "weak side" or opposite side of the floor from Murray and Jokić. Michael Porter Jr. is positioned at the right wing, one pass away from Jokić, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the corner. That's two 41+ percent regular season shooters.

As such, Vincent hugs closely to MPJ instead of rotating over to Jokić, and Strus is basically superglued to KCP in the corner.

Denver's spacing is the secret sauce to its lethal two-man game. Put worse shooters in Porter Jr. and Caldwell-Pope's place, and Denver's lead options have much less room to operate when working together in the halfcourt.

The Nuggets scored a monstrous 1.35 points per possession—equivalent to a 135 offensive rating–when they ran pick-and-roll down the sidelines. Its lethal spacing combined with Murray and Jokić having significant advantages against their defenders is precisely why.

Miami tried everything against the Jokić and Murray pick-and-roll. They switched, which didn't go well as shown previously.

They altered Murray and Jokić's matchups. Cody Zeller stood no chance against the two-time MVP. Martin just didn't have the speed to catch up to Murray when he burst out of screens. Heysmith had some moments pressuring Murray fullcourt, but Denver solved that by simply having someone else, either Jokić or Bruce Brown, take the ball up.

Spoelstra even went to the Jimmy Butler-on-Murray adjustment, which is something we touched on in the series preview. Butler is strong as an ox, so Miami felt comfortable switching Jimmy onto Jokić and Adebayo onto Murray when they engaged in a pick-and-roll.

But once again, the Nuggets were ready. With Butler now on Jokić in the post, Denver had Michael Porter Jr. come out of nowhere to set a screen on Adebayo shortly after Murray made the entry pass. Adebayo is a terrific defender, but he's also a big dude, so getting around screens isn't something he's particularly comfortable with. Nor used to.

As such, Murray flared to the top of the arc for a wide-open three-pointer, and the Nuggets turned a Murray and Jokić pick-and-roll into a Golden State Warriors-style post-split.

(For reference, a post-split is a halfcourt set when one player posts up and two perimeter players come together, screen for each other, and then split apart. Golden State popularized this set by having Draymond Green post up and make decisions, while Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson would perform the "split" part of the action.)

Denver had answers for Miami's zone defense, too.

The HEAT's zone defense has gotten a great deal of coverage through its impressive playoff run. For good reason. Miami has stymied multiple 57+ win teams with a 2-3 zone defense en route to becoming the first 8-seed to advance to the NBA Finals since 1999.

Here's a screenshot from Game 1 of Miami's 2-3 zone. The HEAT had three players along the backline: Adebayo, Butler, and Kyle Lowry. Up top were Highsmith and Vincent.

With a zone defense, players are assigned specific areas of the floor instead of individual players (like you would see in man-to-man defense). So, for the most part, someone like Lowry would stay glued to that right corner. Defenders might bump up and down to stop three-pointers, but the general rule of thumb with zone defense is that you defend your assigned quadrant of the floor.

Miami is in a 2-3 zone defense.

There are a couple of ways to break a zone defense. Outside shooting and ball movement hurt zones from a macro perspective. But on a more fine-tuned level, doing things like getting into the middle of the floor, either by driving or cutting, warps the zone. As you can tell from the screenshot above, the 2-3 zone, by nature, leaves open space at about the free-throw line.

Denver's offensive production was excellent when Jokić found that soft, gooey middle spot of the zone, either by cutting, screening and rolling, or posting up. He's shooting 50 percent from the midrange in the postseason, so unguarded looks from this part of the floor were easy money. When Miami stepped up to erase these in-between looks, Jokić carved the HEAT up with his sublime passing to perimeter shooters or cutters along the baseline.

Murray, too, had an easy time breaking Miami's zone, especially when he was alongside Jokić, who attracts tons of defensive attention. Vincent sunk down to Jokić at the middle of the zone early in the fourth quarter, and Murray drove hard to the rim before Vincent could recover back to him. This pulled in help from Duncan Robinson in the left corner, and Murray correctly made the pass to Porter Jr.

Sure, Porter Jr. missed the shot, but an open three-pointer for the regular season's best unguarded outside shooter is certainly good process for the Nuggets. The drive-and-kick game is a great way to break down Miami's patented 2-3 zone.

Miami deployed the zone when Jokić was off the floor, which made some sense. To their credit, it stymied Denver for a few possessions during the second quarter. But then Jeff Green utilized his veteran expertise to flash to the middle of the floor and float home a hook shot. Zone defenses are also susceptible to offensive rebounds, and Denver crashed the glass relentlessly against Miami's 2-3 look, resulting in a highlight putback dunk from Porter Jr.

Sure, Denver might look a little cleaner scoring and generating offense against the zone with Jokić on the floor, but their backups did one heck of a job in Game 1.

Denver scored 1.16 points per possession against Miami's zone defense in Game 1. That's with Murray missing a routine fadeaway jumper in the fourth quarter and Caldwell-Pope missing on a corner three-pointer. They could've performed at an even better level than a top-5 playoff offense had they knocked down a few additional easy looks.

This might not be the series for Miami's zone defense. Denver just has too much shooting, playmaking, and collective basketball IQ to throw junk defenses out there.

(That said, man-to-man defense was just as hopeless; per Couper Moorhead of HEAT.com, Denver put up 1.15 points per possession against Miami's traditional defense in Game 1. A big ole' shrug for the HEAT.)

One last thing.

Helping on Jokić's post-ups is untenable for Miami. Un-ten-able.

Jokić finished with 14 dimes on the evening and made some truly remarkable reads when Miami sent multiple defenders his way in the post. He appeared completely unbothered by the additional pressure and made the correct read with almost robotic accuracy.

So, to review: Miami can't double Jokić in the post. They can't run zone when he's on the floor because he'll find its soft spot and either score or pass to teammates. They can't switch on pick-and-rolls because he'll back down smaller defenders on post-ups. Drop defense didn't work either thanks to Murray's ability to pull up off the dribble for jumpers and Jokić's floor-spacing.

In short, good luck.

Denver scored well below their postseason average in Game 1 and won by double digits. For all of the chatter about how much better Miami can play, Denver can say the same.

That's a scary thing for the HEAT to think about.

All statistics courtesy of NBA Stats, Synergy Statistics, or Cleaning the Glass unless stated otherwise.