MIAMI — Bam Adebayo needed to hear the question again, so I repeated it.
“Jamal Murray,” I said. “Jimmy spent a lot of time on him in Game 2. He had more of a quiet Game 2. I’m wondering what you saw out of Jimmy in that defensive matchup.”
“He takes the challenge,” said Adebayo, who’s taking on an awfully tough challenge himself in these 2023 NBA Finals, in the form of Nuggets superstar two-time MVP Nikola Jokić. “Whatever the assignment is, I feel like he'll take the challenge. He's going to find a way to make it tough on him.”
Not the most specific and detailed answer of all time, but I think we can cut Adebayo a little slack. After all, you try to answer questions while this is happening a few feet to your right:
— Brady Hawk (@BradyHawk305) June 6, 2023
Jimmy Butler, folks. Making “making it tough on him” look easy since time immemorial.
Erik Spoelstra’s first big between-games tactical shift in these Finals came when he decided to move Caleb Martin back to the bench in favor of returning Kevin Love to the starting frontcourt alongside Adebayo. That alignment had been very successful for the Heat in the opening rounds of the playoffs, but became untenable once the Celtics decided to start only one big man, effectively removing a defensive matchup for Love. Against a Denver team that starts big — huge, really — with Jokić, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. along the front line, though, Spoelstra decided to bring back Love’s size to try to limit the kinds of post-ups, deep seals, duck-ins and bully-ball that the Nuggets feasted on in Game 1.
The realignment paid dividends. Love pulled down a team-high 10 rebounds, snagged a pair of steals, took a charge and played sharp help defense; the Heat outscored Denver by 18 points in his 22 minutes during their 111-108 win Sunday. One important downstream effect of Love moving into the lineup, though, was how it prompted Spoelstra to juggle Miami’s defensive matchups. In Game 1, Butler guarded Gordon for nearly 61% of the time they shared the floor, according to NBA Advanced Stats; Murray, checked mostly by the smaller Gabe Vincent, turned in a brilliant Finals debut, scoring 26 points on 11-for-22 shooting with 10 assists in Denver’s series-opening victory.
In Game 2, though, with Love lining up against Gordon at the 4 spot, Butler shifted over to pick up Murray. Not all the time — “It's not just Jimmy … Murray will draw second defenders, third defenders,” Spoelstra was quick to note at Heat practice Saturday — but on more than half of the possessions on which they shared the floor.
“He scores in so many different ways,” Butler said. “He has the ball consistently and he is making all the right reads, all the right passes. But it's just about effort, contesting every shot, body on body, making everything difficult for him.”
Well, mission accomplished: Murray had 12 points on 12 shots in 36 minutes of work with 2:35 to go in Game 2.
“Mentality is the same,” Murray said of his approach going from a steady diet of Vincent and Martin in Game 1 to Butler’s coverage in Game 2 (and, presumably, beyond). “I've seen a lot of defenders throughout my career. Jimmy is a good defender. Got great hands, anticipation.”
To his credit, Murray finished Game 2 with 18, thanks to a pair of huge 3s in that final 2:35; he would have had more if not for a missed goaltend and a front-rimmed late-second equalizer. That he didn’t, though, played a huge role in the Heat sending this series back to Miami tied at one game apiece rather than down 2-0 … and the all-court harassment of Butler, who held Murray to just 3-for-6 shooting when they were matched up, played a huge role in making sure that his comparatively muted production was a hell of a lot tougher to come by.
Bam Adebayo on Jimmy Butler: “Whatever the assignment is, I feel like he'll take the challenge. He's going to find a way to make it tough on him."
Here's Jimmy making it tough on Jamal Murray in Game 2: tight contests, screen navigation, ball denial, slicing at the dribble, etc. pic.twitter.com/2i1LAr7OJb
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) June 6, 2023
Butler’s work mattered in some evident ways: contested looks going awry, dribbles interrupted and poked clean, ball pressure that got Murray to rethink his options in the air and one half of Denver’s bread-and-butter two-man game tamped down. Couper Moorhead of Heat.com noted that Murray scored just 0.75 points per pick-and-roll run against Miami’s drop coverage in Game 2 — an area where Butler’s ability to get over the top of screens, stay connected and use his length and physicality to bother Murray as he came off the pick likely contributed to the struggles.
It sang loudest, though, in the moments where nothing happened — or, rather, in the ones where something else did.
Murray led all players in Game 1 in total touches, frontcourt touches and time of possession, according to Second Spectrum; his fingerprints, as Spoelstra might say, were all over the competition. In Game 2, though? Thirty-five fewer total touches for Murray, 12 fewer in the frontcourt and 2.6 fewer minutes on the ball. He took seven fewer shots in his 39 minutes of play and only seven of the 15 he got up came inside the arc.
“To be honest, I didn't realize,” Jokić said. “I mean, when you play the game, you don't think about it. You're just trying to win. But yes, definitely we need to get him going.”
There are a couple of caveats worth noting in those numbers. It was a slower-paced game — just 86 offensive possessions for Denver, down from 93 in Game 1, which was their slowest-paced game of the season, just ahead of a February game against … the Heat. (“We want to play fast,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said at Tuesday’s practice. “They want to play slow.”) Murray also played about five fewer minutes in Game 2 than in Game 1. The touch and time-of-possession numbers would likely have equalized at a slightly higher pace and had Malone again leaned harder on his star point guard.
Even so, though: Go back through Game 2, and you’ll find the possessions where Jokić and Denver’s other passers, surveying their options, decided to look elsewhere rather than try to force the ball to the guy covered by the five-time All-Defensive Teamer.
“Biggest thing for us is, force everybody on the team into tough shots, and you live with that result,” Adebayo said.
Even if, perhaps — at the risk of raising Spoelstra’s ire with the suggestion — those tough shots are being taken by the two-time MVP.
“He is one of the heads of the snake,” Butler said. “I think it's a two-headed snake, in this instance.”
While getting bitten by a standard-issue one-headed snake still isn’t fun, it also might not kill you. Yes, the Nuggets’ offense performed fine on the whole in Game 2, and yes, Jokić scored 41 points. With Murray limited and the rhythm thrown off, though, the offensive efficiency of Denver’s starting lineup plunged from 118.2 points per 100 possessions in Game 1 to a mere 100 flat in Game 2. At a point in the season where every margin counts, that shift — those sluggish starts to the first and third quarters where the Nuggets weren’t getting stops or buckets — helped tilt the run of play in Miami’s favor just enough to swipe home-court advantage.
The challenge facing Butler and the rest of the Heat now? Continuing to keep Murray under wraps.
“I've got to continually do that, because I know if I lead the way on that end, along with Bam, everybody has to follow suit,” Butler said. “It's all about doing your job, doing what is asked of you on any given night and hoping, praying that you did enough to get a win.”
The task for Murray and the Nuggets, in turn, is to remain aggressive in spite of Butler’s coverage and to trust in their teammates to find ways to make Miami pay for it.
“Aggressiveness is not just shooting the ball,” Murray said. “If I'm getting downhill and making the pass to another guy that is open, that is me being aggressive … It's a team sport. It's not really about me.”
At some point, though, Denver might need Murray to make it about him — to stare down one of the best perimeter defenders in the world and be brash enough not to blink; to find ways to shed him, create more separation to cook and to get that other head biting again.
“Obviously, he is a little taller than me. I'm not going to tell you how to beat it,” said Murray with a smile. “But I've got my ways.”