Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat, NBA, NBA Playoffs

2023 NBA Finals: Inside the numbers that will define Game 2

With Game 2 of the NBA Finals between the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat set to tip off at 8 p.m. ET, here are a few things to watch for.

The Denver Nuggets took care of business in the first game of the 2023 NBA Finals, beating the Miami Heat by a final tally of 104-93 on Thursday night.

Despite Denver’s 104 points being their second lowest scoring output of the postseason, Nikola Jokic (27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds on just 12 shot attempts) and Jamaal Murray (26 points, 10 assists) were dominant, becoming the first pair of teammates to record 25+ points and 10+ assists in a Finals game since Magic Johnson and James Worthy back in 1987.

As for Miami, coming off a grueling, seven-game Eastern Conference Finals series against the Boston Celtics, it looked like fatigue played a role in their Game 1 struggles (the altitude in Denver also didn’t help) as their 93 points was their lowest total in a game so far in these NBA Playoffs.

The Heat shot just 40.6% from the field, attempted just two free-throws in the entire game, and missed some good looks from the perimeter, shooting just 5/16 (31.3%) on three-point attempts without a defender within six feet of the shooter — defined as ‘wide-open’ per’s tracking data — after shooting a sweltering 58.3% on these attempts in the Eastern Conference Finals. Safe to say, this was not an easy bingo card to win with.

It’s worth noting, however, that while Miami came away from Game 1 feeling like they left some meat on the bone in terms of their shot-making, Denver probably felt the same way. These two teams entered the series as the top two perimeter shooting outfits of the Playoffs, yet shot 33.3% and 29.6% respectively from three-point range on Thursday night.

Expect both of those numbers to tick back up towards their postseason averages as the series wears on. As is the case in the modern NBA, the three-point shooting battle will be a major factor in deciding the outcome of this series.

Below are a few more areas to keep an eye on in Game 2.

Can Miami Heat take advantage of the Short Mid-Range (SMR)?

One of the most common questions that cropped up after Game 1 was “why didn’t Miami attack the basket more?” After all, Denver’s opponents shot 70.6% inside 4-feet against them during the regular season, the second-highest mark in the league. This is a pain point for their defense that the Heat must be exploiting!

While it is true that Miami could have been more aggressive attacking the basket — they drove the ball 10 fewer times than their postseason average (44.8) in Game 1, and took just two free throws on the night — I actually didn’t have too much of an issue with their shot profile, as it seemed like they were still able to generate shots that they typically make.

I touched on their three-point shooting struggles above, but another area where Miami really struggled to find their groove was in the short mid-range (SMR) — shots taken between 4-14 feet away from the basket. Per cleaningtheglass, Miami ranked as the fifth-most efficient team from this area (fg%: 46.5), and frequented this area the second most out of any team during the regular season. However, despite getting there at the same rate as they have for much of the postseason, they shot just 5/22 (22.7%) from SMR in Game 1.

If the Heat can catch fire from this area tonight and force Denver to adjust to try and take away these looks, it will free up their other players either at the basket or from the three-point line for higher value shot attempts.

The Nuggets know they are vulnerable when it comes to defending the rim, and will gladly allow Miami to live in the mid-range if they continue to shoot so poorly from this area. If they are able to carry out this same strategy tonight, it could mean trouble for the Heat.

Jimmy Butler’s free throw attempts

While thinking about what I was going to write in this section, the expression ‘beating a dead horse’ came to mind on numerous occasions as Jimmy Butler’s lack of aggression in Game 1 has been one of the most common talking points ahead of Game 2. Still, there’s a reason that it’s been discussed so much and that is that it is undeniably true.

If the Miami Heat are going to win this series, 13 points on 14 field goal attempts, to go along with ZERO free throw attempts from the one they call (he calls?) ‘Himmy Buckets’ is not going to be enough. While we should certainly see a more active Jimmy Butler tonight than we did in Game 1, I think a good barometer for his aggression will be how often he gets to the free throw line.

Getting to the foul line is a huge part of Jimmy’s game as he is one of the most adept foul-drawers in the NBA. He ranked No. 1 in shooting fouled percentage amongst combo guards, wings and forwards this season per cleaningtheglass. In these playoffs, he’s averaged 8.6 free-throw attempts per game which ranks third behind Joel Embiid (9.3) and Kevin Durant (8.7). Just recently, he bated Al Horford into this foul on one of the most pivotal plays of the season, nearly clinching a victory for Miami in Game 6 of the ECF.

Getting to the line early on in tonight’s game will not only help Butler get into an early rhythm, but it could also put some pressure on Denver’s rotations, as the Nuggets were extremely reliant on their starting lineup in Game 1. Michael Porter Jr. played 43 minutes, and Jamaal Murray played 44 minutes, their highest minutes total of the postseason. Aaron Gordon is their best perimeter defender and pulverized smaller Miami defenders in Game 1, getting him into foul trouble would somewhat defang Denver’s defense. If Jimmy is his typical, aggressive self and bates any of these players into foul trouble, it could throw a major wrench in Denver’s plans.

Sixth man, Bruce Brown, has been a vital cog in the Nuggets machine all season long and will surely be asked to shoulder a couple of extra minutes should the need arise. However, after Brown, the Nuggets’ options off the bench are scant. Jeff Green played 11 minutes in Game 1, and has struggled to find his shooting touch this postseason, shooting just 26.9% from the perimeter. Rookie, Christian Braun, was the only other player to play off the bench and didn’t make much of an impact (0 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 turnover, and 2 fouls in 8 minutes).

While all of Miami’s players need to play with more aggression tonight, it starts with their leader, Jimmy Butler. Expect ‘Himmy Buckets’ to be at his best tonight, and for him to make his impact felt at the charity stripe tonight.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Miami Heat turn Nuggets star Nikola Jokic into a scorer?

So far this postseason, stopping Nikola Jokic has been a puzzle that nobody has been able to solve. The reason that he is such a force on the basketball floor is due to the fact that he is a multi-dimensional player, able to impact the game just as much with his passing and rebounding ability as he is able to with his scoring.

That being said, something that could give us a hint on what a potential Miami adjustment could look like is the fact that Denver had a worse record during in games where Jokic scored 30+ points (20-8) than they did in games where he racked up 12+ assists (25-1) during the regular season. While nobody can stop Jokic, team’s that allowed him to flex his muscle as a scorer rather than a playmaker seemed to have a greater chance of success against him.

However, Miami found themselves in the less fortunate of these two categories after Game 1, allowing the Joker to rack up 14 assists — two more than the number of field goal attempts he took in the game, even though he still managed to pour in 27 points.

While forcing the guy who just scored 27 points on 12 field goal attempts to shoot more might not sound like a great strategy, it’s been apparent for a few seasons now that Denver’s offense is so much harder to guard when the complimentary players’ around Jokic are shooting well because there are simply too many options available to him to carve up your defense with.

If Miami can commit to not over-helping onto Jokic, allowing him to attack 1:1 mismatches, they could disrupt the rhythm of the Nuggets’ complimentary players and reduce the impact they have on the game. Obviously, guarding Jokic 1:1 poses its own problems, and there’s a good chance he turns his matchup into barbecue chicken, but you have to pick your battles when you are going up against one of the most skilled players to ever play the game of basketball and making Jokic think score-first could be the tweak Miami has to make to have a chance in the series.

It’s going to be fascinating to see how the Heat will try to defend Jokic tonight.

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