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NBA Finals: Defense remains the most overlooked part of the Nuggets' dominance

DENVER — When you think about the Nuggets, the first thing you think of is probably offense.

(OK, maybe you think about Dikembe Mutombo on his back squeezing a ball for dear life, or Carmelo Anthony jab-stepping to Valhalla, or Rocky the Mountain Lion draining backward half-court shots. For the purposes of this exercise, though, just go with me, all right?)

Denver has finished in the top 10 in the NBA in points scored per possession for six years running and in the top five four times in that span, including this season. The Nuggets have reached an even higher level on that end over the past two months, leading the postseason in offensive efficiency by an absurd amount, thanks to the paradigm-shifting play of Nikola Jokić, the scoring and playmaking excellence of Jamal Murray, and contributions from up and down a roster teeming with talent and perfectly constructed to complement the senses-shattering Murray-Jokić two-man game.

When you think about why the Nuggets are one win away from their first NBA championship in franchise history, though, maybe that’s not the side of the court you should be focusing on.

“I don't think it's just us scoring the ball,” said Nuggets guard Bruce Brown, whose fourth-quarter explosion helped seal Game 4, at Denver’s Sunday practice. “It's our defense. We've held [the Miami Heat] in the 90s the last few games, and that's why we've won the game.”

As much as the 2023 NBA Finals thus far have served as a coronation for Jokić as arguably the best basketball player in the world (and the dissents sure seem to be getting quieter with each passing game), a coming-out party for Murray (on the national stage, at least) and a validation of the patience that Denver’s ownership and front office showed in building a championship-caliber roster, they’ve also provided proof that these Nuggets don’t just have to overwhelm you. They can shut your water off, too.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic practices during an NBA Finals open practice, Sunday, June 11, 2023, in Denver. The Nuggets take on the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Monday. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
The Nuggets and center Nikola Jokić, at practice Sunday in Denver, need one more win for their first NBA championship. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Through 19 postseason games, the Nuggets have allowed 111.9 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass — a defensive efficiency mark nearly three points per 100 below their regular-season rate, and that would’ve ranked fifth in the league during the 82-game season. They’ve clamped down even tighter in these Finals, limiting the Heat to just 109.5 points per 100, with performances in Games 1, 3 and 4 that rank as Miami’s three least effective offensive outings of the postseason.

“Their shooters are moving on every drive,” Murray said Sunday. “Duncan [Robinson] is flying off [screens] both ways off Bam [Adebayo]. [Max] Strus is not shooting well, but he's getting some good looks. So we can't keep giving these shooters good looks. We know they are going to make shots, but as long as we keep our discipline and don't give them the open stuff, I think we are in a good spot.

“We gave them a couple easy layups, easy dunks last game. We take those away, we take away a lot of life they have and kind of just shut down their offense.”

The outlier in this series is Miami’s lone win: Game 2, which saw the Heat scorch the nets to the tune of 129.1 points-per-100 and an effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for 3-pointers being worth more than 2-pointers) of nearly 60% on the back of 17-for-35 shooting from long distance:

After that game, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone lambasted his team’s effort, discipline and attention to detail in coverage, noting multiple game-plan and personnel breakdowns that the Heat repeatedly punished:

Several Nuggets suggested that the way Miami made them pay for the breakdowns served as a necessary wakeup call — a stark reminder that Malone wasn’t just blathering coach-speak when he said they didn’t play all that well in their Game 1 win.

“I think that we got punked in the effort standpoint,” rookie Christian Braun said. “And that doesn't happen in the NBA Finals.”

Getting three more wins would require a significantly more focused approach.

“Just not breaking down on defense,” Game 4 star and Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “I think in the one game where they shot a lot of threes and made a lot of 3s, we had far too many breakdowns.”

Message received: After giving up 74 3-point attempts in the first two games of the series, Denver has allowed Miami to take just 60 in the past two.

“[It’s] just knowing personnel — knowing who you’re guarding, knowing what they like to do,” Nuggets veteran Jeff Green said in describing the team-wide effort to limit Miami’s attempts. “That comes with hours of studying the playbook, the personnel, their likes and [dislikes]. And effort, honestly. You can't stop everything, but with your effort, you can take some things away, and I think we've done a good job of that.”

Particularly the tastiest looks for Miami’s shooters. In a Game 4 smothering that saw the Heat get up a mere 25 triples, two off their postseason low, they generated only eight “wide-open” 3-point attempts with no defender within 6 feet of the shooter, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking — half as many as Miami got in Game 1.

“Even in the first game, from the first game, you can see how we are as a team better in communication and maybe reading the plays and knowing when to help and when not to help,” Jokić said. “I think we are growing — even now, in the Finals. Every game, we are better and better.”

Asked if there was anything specific that Malone emphasized as a key in taking those great looks away after Game 2, Green paused, smiled and said, “I don’t know.” Behind that smile lay a tactical truth: The Nuggets started to regain control of the series after making the decision to more frequently play Miami’s stars straight up, rather than sending the extra help on the Heat’s post-ups and isolations that can open up clean catch-and-shoot opportunities for the Heat’s stable of marksmen.

“We're staying home with shooters and allowing [Aaron Gordon] to play one-on-one with Jimmy [Butler] a lot,” Murray said Sunday. “The same thing with Jokić [on Adebayo].”

“We need to do a better job, just overall, with our offense — some of the details, and how we can shift their defense,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said Sunday. “They definitely made an adjustment to try to stay at home on 3-point shooters. It's not the first time we have faced that. I think that's a great compliment to [our shooters] and how important they are to our offense. We just have to do it better.”

Trusting Gordon and Jokić to handle their matchups one-on-one has kickstarted a virtuous cycle for the Denver defense. When the perimeter defenders don’t have to help off their men as much, they don’t have as much distance to cover on the flight of the ball to be able to close out on Miami’s shooters. Sharper, better-balanced closeouts mean that you’re likely not as susceptible to either a fly-by — with the shooter pump-faking and taking one escape dribble to the side to rise and fire — or a hard drive downhill that requires a help defender to step up, leaving his man open for a pass behind the play.

Keep the ball in front on those closeouts, and Miami has to reset the offense with a fresh round of actions, screens and cuts — all of which expend more energy and eat up more seconds on the shot clock, increasing the likelihood of a late-clock contested attempt with a lower probability of finding the bottom of the net.

“Second efforts,” Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “We'll have to scramble sometimes throughout the game, but that second effort that we give to run them off that 3-point line, or get a contest or get a miss, goes good in our favor. That's what works for us.”

And if those scrambles force Miami into more congestion on the interior, so much the better. The Heat have shot just 76-for-158 (48.1%) in the paint in the Finals and only 22-for-41 (53.7%) inside the restricted area over the past two games, routinely struggling to convert over Denver’s tall trees inside. That includes the 6-foot-11 Jokić, whose defensive work has frequently come under fire throughout his career, but who has logged six blocks, four steals and 13 deflections through five Finals games and who has held the Heat to just 50% shooting at the rim when he’s the closest defender, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking.

“As a group, we know what we can do on defense,” Murray said before Game 4. “We're just trying to change the narrative that he doesn't play defense. He's got amazing hands, timing, IQ, rebounding ability, body position, rule of [verticality] — he's got all that. Sometimes it's not about how high you can jump and what kind of shots you can block. It's about body position and where you are on the court. That's half the job, right there.”

Jokić’s ability to hold up in coverage, combined with Gordon’s work in limiting Butler — just 21.8 points per game on 44.6% shooting in this series — and the collective efforts of guards Caldwell-Pope, Brown, Murray and Braun in sticking with Miami’s shooters through their nightly off-ball marathons have kept Miami from consistently putting the ball in the basket since Game 2. To extend the series, the Heat will, as Spoelstra’s fond of saying, get the game back on their terms. That will require a change … though, to hear the Heat tell it, perhaps not all that dramatic of one.

“As a group, I think we've found ways that we've gotten great looks,” said Heat guard Kyle Lowry, who chipped in 13 points and seven assists off the bench in Game 4. “I think we've found a little bit of a rhythm offensively. We haven't made all the shots.”

The pain has been exceptionally acute for starters Strus and Gabe Vincent, who went 12-for-22 overall and 8-for-16 from deep in the Game 2 win, but combined to shoot a dismal 4-for-27 from the field and 2-for-17 from 3-point range during Games 3 and 4 in Miami. Spoelstra has repeatedly praised them, and the rest of Miami’s shooters, as “ignitable” types who just need to see one or two go down to catch the kind of rhythm that can tilt a quarter, and with it a game, and with it, maybe, a series. If they get off to another slow start from distance in Game 5, though, he might need to have an early hook and look elsewhere for the necessary combustion.

“We've got to continue to find ways to find cracks whenever we can,” added forward Caleb Martin, who carved up the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, but whom Denver has largely blanketed in this series. “... We're a great enough offensive team to where if you take something away, something has got to give.”

Miami has to rediscover the magic in the margins. Lowry highlighted turnovers — of which Miami had 14 in Game 4, leading to 17 Denver points — as a critical bellwether, especially as it relates to limiting the “shots on goal” that the Heat prioritize as a means of narrowing the offensive gap between them and Jokić, Murray and Co. They’ve got to look to push in transition at every opportunity, hunting early offense against a backtracking defense that can create the kind of swing-swing sequences that end with a good shooter stepping into an in-rhythm long ball. They’ve got to attack the offensive glass — judiciously, because the last thing Denver needs is a few easy ones the other way — to see if that can pry loose some scramble-drill 3s against an unsettled defense.

They’ve also got to make more hay in the drive-and-kick game — something Denver’s schematic shift, size and effort have done a good job of taking away, and something that Butler, in particular, is going to have to crowbar open.

“I have to do a better job of getting guys open, whether it be off the screen or off my attacks, to make sure our shooters get the shots they normally get,” Butler said Sunday. “All the film that we watch, we've got to find ways to do it. It's not easy. It's definitely not easy when you're in the Finals; they are paying attention to us as much as we are paying attention to them. But we've got to be able to do it if we want to win. We do want to win, so we'll figure it out.”

If they don’t, this series, this magical postseason run, the pursuit of Miami’s fourth NBA championship — all of that comes to an end. Spoelstra is betting on his guys to produce the most hellacious effort of their season to prevent that.

“We have just — I've used this term before — savage competitors,” Spoelstra said. “They love the ultimate challenges and the ultimate competition. … Everybody is counting us out. We're used to that. But ultimately it has to be decided between those four lines. The crowd is not going to decide it. The narratives are not going to decide it. Whatever the analytics are about 3-1, that ain't going to decide it. It's going to be decided between those four lines, whose game can get to whose game and ultimately win at the end. That's what our guys love.”

The Nuggets, for their part, are ready for that punch — and to deliver one of their own.

“Our approach has to be we are down 3-1,” Malone said. “They are desperate; we have to be more desperate. They are hungry; we have to be hungrier. There is no celebrating after Game 4. We have another game that we have to win, and the close-out game is always the hardest game ever.”

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