Nikola Jokić did not attempt a field goal in Game 1 of the NBA Finals until he stripped Miami Heat backup center Cody Zeller and dropped in a layup with 3.3 seconds remaining in the first quarter, when his Denver Nuggets were dominating the points-in-the-paint battle, 20-6, on their way to an early 9-point lead.
The lead swelled to as many as 24 points, as the Nuggets overwhelmed the Heat in a 104-93 victory with a size advantage that is not about to change over the course of what (on first viewing) could be a short series.
We will get to Jokić and the 27-10-14 triple-double he registered with the ease of a horse-drawn MVP acceptance speech, but Aaron Gordon made clear the magnitude of Denver's height from the jump. The 6-foot-8, 235-pound two-time slam dunk contest runner-up bullied Gabe Vincent and every other smaller defender Miami tried to hide on him, scoring 12 points on 6-for-6 shooting at the rim in the first quarter.
"This is just Denver Nuggets basketball. We find a mismatch, we exploit it, and we keep going to it," Gordon told reporters. "I was just taking what the defense was giving me and attacking what I felt was a mismatch."
Bam Adebayo is the only one of Miami's top seven players taller than 6-7, and he is still giving up at least two inches and 30 pounds to Jokić. The Serbian center is officially listed at 6-11, one inch shorter than the Nuggets pegged him in 2019 and two inches shorter than Gordon described him in an in-game interview. Insert the 6-11 Zeller next to Jokić, and you will quickly discover that official heights are works of fiction.
Jokić's unique ability to space and see the floor with size — he's shooting 47.5% from 3-point range and averaging a playoff-best 10.5 assists per game, pulls Adebayo from the basket, because the Heat have nobody else to guard him. That leaves no protection at the rim, where Jokić found his 6-4 point guard, Jamal Murray, for two first-quarter cutting dunks that the shorter Vincent could only watch from behind.
"They are a physical group," said Vincent, one of few bright spots offensively for Miami. "We had to adjust to their physicality early, especially myself. They had a couple layups on me early that we had to adjust to. But, you know, it's a long series, first to four wins, adjustments will be made, and we'll learn from this loss."
It was 6-10 wing Michael Porter Jr.'s turn next. He drilled a 3 over the outstretched arms of Jimmy Butler and saw only daylight for another over 6-foot Kyle Lowry, pushing Denver's lead to 11 early in the second quarter. In between, he ran free from Lowry for a pair of dunks to which Adebayo could not recover in time.
"He's 6-10, he's doing more than just knocking down shots, and that's dangerous," Murray said of Porter after the two combined for 40 points. "When he's doing that, he's helping us a lot just being on the wing."
Even the ageless Jeff Green felt comfortable enough posting Adebayo for a second-quarter turnaround.
It was a clinic, and the vaunted Jokić-Murray two-man game had barely gotten started. They worked switches onto Haywood Highsmith, where Jokić bodied the generously listed 6-7 journeyman into the basket or found Murray dashing to his spot on the arc, again catching Adebayo between the rim and the perimeter. Jokić and Murray combined for 11 of Denver's 13 points over the final five minutes of the second quarter — the other two on another Gordon post-up in the paint — taking the lead to 59-42 by the break.
On the other end of the floor, Denver dared Adebayo to shoot over Jokić from 7-to-15 feet, and he obliged, attempting 16 of this 25 shots from that range. Butler, whose confidence brimmed in Miami's conference finals victory against the Boston Celtics, was hesitant to attack Jokić — never known for his rim protection — if only because the length of Gordon and Porter usually steered him into a forest of towering limbs.
"You have to credit them with their size and really protecting the paint and bringing a third defender," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters after the loss. "Things have to be done with a lot more intention and a lot more pace, a lot more detail. We are an aggressive, attacking team, and so if we are not getting those kind of opportunities at the rim or at the free-throw line, we have to find different ways to be able to do it."
The game was over at the half, and in the end, the Nuggets blocked twice as many shots as the Heat attempted free throws — two, the lowest single-game total in Finals history. Highsmith, who took both of Miami's foul shots, described the free-throw discrepancy as "interesting," but the most curious part about it was how little force the usually brutish Heat applied when faced with the length of a much larger team.
"We can't let them dictate the game," said Adebayo. "We took a lot of jump shots, and we missed a lot of them instead of getting to the basket. We're going to watch film and get back to the drawing board."
"Maybe I have to be a little bit more aggressive," added Butler, whose 13 points were his lowest total of the playoffs. "I've got to put pressure on the rim. Me with no free throws, that was all on myself, nobody else."
Butler and Adebayo will attack more often in Sunday's Game 2. You can count on that. But what should keep the Heat on their heels is how little Jokić had to work in order to dominate the series opener. He took five shots through the first three quarters, and the Nuggets led by 21. When Miami's 11-0 run to start the fourth quarter closed the gap 10, Denver calmly found Jokić in the post every time it needed an answer.
He drew everyone inside the zone and found Green backdoor. When Adebayo sagged, he popped an 8-foot floater. And when Miami's defense locked up, Jokić backed Adebayo into his comfort zone and lobbed two turnarounds over him. It felt as though Jokić could do it all night if he had to, but he didn't, and he still ran up four personal fouls on Adebayo. God save the Heat if their only reliable big ever gets in foul trouble.
"He's a heavy guy," Murray said of Jokić. "He's going to get boards and rebound the ball and just be physical down there regardless. Even if he's not shooting well or scoring well, he's still a load down there."
The Heat struggled with the elevation in Denver, all right, but it wasn't the air that gave them problems.