Can Heat slow potent Nuggets? ‘We’re definitely going to have to go to school on it’

DENVER — Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra likes to talk about going “into the cave” with his coaching staff to prepare for the next game.

They find answers in that room, and that’s why the eighth-seeded Heat are in the NBA Finals.

After Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets, endless time in the cave might not be enough to solve Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.

The Nuggets took Game 1 104-93, and it became clear over 48 minutes − as many expected − that Miami is in trouble with the playmaking and scoring from Jokic and Murray.

Jokic registered his NBA-record ninth triple-double in a single postseason and 14th overall with 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds. Murray had 26 points, 10 assists and six rebounds.

Jokic and Murray are the second pair of teammates to each have at least 25 points, 10 assists and five rebounds in a Finals game, joining the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and James Worthy (Game 1 in 1987). Jokic and Murray and Johnson and Worthy are also the only teammates to have 25 points and 10 assists in a Finals game.

The Heat can allow one of those players to have that kind of game but not both − at least if they want to have a chance at winning the title.

“We’re definitely going to have to go to school on it,” Spoelstra said.

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Miami might not have the personnel, especially size-wise, to do much about it in this series. Of course, Spoelstra and his staff will try, but it’s a puzzle no team in the playoffs has solved.

This is no Rubik’s Cube. This is trying to solve a complicated math problem, and Game 2 will reveal if Miami discovered the answer.

It was a deceiving 11-point winning margin. Denver led 84-60 late in the third quarter and coasted a bit in the fourth.

In Game 1, Jokic started slowly − just one shot in the first quarter though he had six assists. That’s part of the problem Miami faces. Jokic crushes you with his passing just as much as he does with his scoring.

“They're trying not to let him score,” Murray said.

And yet Jokic keeps playing and playing until you look at the box score at the end of the game and he has a 27-point triple-double.

You can’t double-team him because he finds open teammates, and you can’t play him one-on-one because he will break down the defense, especially in pick-and-rolls.

“He's going to make plays,” Miami’s Jimmy Butler said. “He's going to be great at times.”

Nikola Jokic controls the ball while being defended by Jimmy Butler during the second quarter in Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals.

Butler gives away a potential answer to solving Denver’s explosive offense. Jokic will make plays. He will end up with his triple-doubles or close to it. He’s done that for the past three seasons, and Miami won’t slow it now.

Miami needs to pick a player to limit, and that player is Murray. The Heat can’t let him shoot 50% from the field. They can’t let him have both 26 points and 10 assists.

“Jamal is a talented player,” Miami’s Gabe Vincent said. “He can score in a number of ways. One of the things that makes him difficult to guard is when he gets off the ball, and then you have to deal with the cuts and he's circling back.

“And they are looking for him. So when he's off the ball, you already know the ball is going to end up in his hands at some point. He's a dynamic scorer. He poses threats in different ways and he's relentless.”

Murray averaged 30-plus points against a solid Los Angeles Lakers defense and had back-to-back 37-point games in the Western Conference finals. Putting more defensive pressure on Murray leaves room for Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. to score. It is an offense that fits well together.

But the Heat have a better chance at limiting Murray than they do Jokic. A shooter’s shot sometimes doesn’t go in. Instead of 11-for-22, the Heat can force Murray into 7-for-22. They can get the basketball out of his hands and try to reduce his playmaking. They will also try to be more physical with him, do things that interrupt his rhythm.

If you can’t stop both, try to stop one. It is a conundrum that may not have a solution. Right now, Miami isn't close to one.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why Heat aren’t even close to a Jokic-Murray solution in NBA Finals