At least, that’s what I think has the highest chance of happening… I’m hoping and praying the Miami Heat figure out a way to win it all so Jimmy Butler can get his dues, but even while Miami has been underrated by everyone (except by me) all season, Denver is just the more complete team, top to bottom. Game one will be extremely telling if Miami has a shot—they don’t need to win tonight, but they need to show they have some fight and that they can disrupt the offensive machine that is Denver.
So what I’m going to focus on here is what I believe needs to happen for Miami to have a chance. First thing�s first, they essentially have to be perfect; as opposed to Denver who has a little bit more wiggle room given the offensive fire power behind their two-time MVP. That means taking care of the ball, securing defensive rebounds, limiting fast-break opportunities, and working their asses off on defense.
Starting with the obvious. Whether or not Love starts for Miami, the main defender of Jokić will be Bam Adebayo. I don’t think there are any questions about that. Bam, as I’ve stated before, is the x-factor in this series. Miami is going to leave Bam on an island to fend for himself, even with his lack of size, and they will be perfectly content if Jokić goes off for 45. What leaving Bam on an island does is it allows the other Miami Heat defenders to hug their men tightly, reducing the playmaking ability of Jokić, and preventing the other Nuggets players from getting into any kind of rhythm. The lack of touches could also lend itself to the other Nuggets players being less engaged on the defensive end, which is where Denver has more deficiencies already. Again, this is where Bam becomes critical. It will be his job to make sure Jokić gets zero possessions off on the defensive end.
I’m less sure if Miami will take this route and even if they do, it probably won’t be for 35 minutes. However, I think allowing Butler to hound Murray as much as possible, while Bam is forced to fend for himself down low, gives Miami the best chance of winning. Butler can be that itch that just won’t go away for Murray; he can hound him, get in his face, talk a little trash, do anything to get Murray even a little bit frustrated and off his game. Murray will no doubt find hot stretches in this series, but the more Jimmy can get in his face, the better chance you have of limiting the length and frequencies of those stretches. This also gives Miami a better chance of getting Jimmy going on fast-breaks and getting favorable mismatches for him to post up a smaller and weaker Murray in the secondary break.
If Jimmy is on Murray, KCP is the only remaining Nugget that Vincent can match-up with size-wise and that’s probably for the best. Vincent is one of the weaker defenders in the starting rotation and KCP is the lowest threat given the fire-power the Nuggets have going on. I expect Vincent to have a much bigger impact on this series on the offensive end anyways, so this allows him to save himself a bit.
This and the next match-up can probably be flipped, but I lean towards putting Martin on Gordon, despite the size disadvantage, because I think Martin will deal better with the activity and cutting that Aaron Gordon gives you throughout the game. Gordon is not one to post up, so Martin’s job is going to be preventing Gordon from getting too many cuts and easy looks off of Jokić passes.
While Struss has the size and strength to deal with Gordon, I think he is more suited for guarding Porter Jr., even if Porter Jr. is better at creating his own shot off the dribble. Porter Jr. tends to be less active (compared to Gordon) and is more concerned with hanging out around the perimeter, being on the receiving end of kick-outs for open threes. If Miami sticks to their guns and don’t double-team Jokić in the post, Struss should be able to stay home on Porter Jr. and (hopefully) keep him from getting hot. If not, Porter Jr. could easily get going and extinguish any chance Miami has at slowing down Denver’s offense.
Let’s wrap up by talking about what Miami can do offensively, assuming they can find a way to be half decent at limiting Denver’s opportunities.
Given the huge responsibility both Bam and Jimmy will have defensively, the other guys are once again going to have to come through in a big way. I don’t see Butler repeating what he did against the Knicks (or first couple games against the Celtics). Instead, I expect him to facilitate and lean on the other guys—at least through the first three quarters.
The first look I expect Miami to give is a simple Vincent/Bam pick-and-roll. Using Bam as the screener will ensure Jokić does not get any rest on the court and given Denver’s strategy of sitting back on screens, Vincent should have the green light to fire away. To mix things up, you will start to see Vincent drive off that screen, which is where all the movement will come into play and three main things open up—a kick-out to Struss in the strong-side corner for three, a drop-off to Bam at the elbow who has space from a dropping Jokić, or a cutting Butler/Martin. They will run these same actions with Martin and Butler as the ball-handler too, but I expect to see them use an empty corner set where they can find an easier path to the basket for a bucket—when Jimmy needs to get going in the fourth, he’ll take this to the baseline jumper all day.
Lastly, I just want to reiterate that Bam is going to be the player to watch. His attitude when Jokić gets into a scoring rhythm will tell you everything you need to know. Keep an eye on how Bam defends and the actions he tries to force Jokić into on the other end. He’s going to have to be a workhorse out there, but watching him closely will tell you everything you need to know about the X’s and O’s of the game and whether Miami has a shot at this thing.