The Denver Nuggets have reclaimed control of the 2023 NBA Finals following their dominant 15-point win Wednesday in Miami. The good news for the Miami Heat is that a 2-1 series lead in the Finals hasn’t guaranteed confetti recently. Ten teams have held a 2-1 advantage in the Finals since 2011 (whether after being up 2-0 or tied 1-1); yet, only four of those 10 teams have gone on to win the series. If Miami wants to become the seventh team to overcome a 2-1 deficit — something the Heat did in 2006 and 2013 — Erik Spoelstra’s squad will need to play better basketball in Game 4.
There are four key areas for the Heat to focus on in Game 4 at Kaseya Center (Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC) — which the Heat are hoping won’t be the last in that arena this season.
1. Limit Denver’s two-man game
If the Nuggets win their first NBA championship, it will be because of the two-man game of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray was too much for Heat Culture. This pairing has become one of the most prolific duos in postseason history, and if you think that’s an exaggeration, consider this: In Game 3, Jokic and Murray became the first teammates to record a 30-point triple-double in an NBA game. Not Finals game, not postseason game — any game in the 76-year history of the NBA.
They both put up video game numbers because they make each other better. Jokic is rightfully getting his flowers for his absurd 30-20-10 game (that stat line was the first in Finals history and the first in any game since Jokic did it in the conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers), but he’s not getting enough love for his work as a screener; Jokic is also one of the hardest working and most effective left tackles in pro basketball.
According to Second Spectrum, Jokic set an on-ball screen for Murray 32 times Wednesday, tied for their most in a game this season and tied for second-most in any game since becoming teammates in 2016. The combination of Jokic’s massive frame and his knack for setting screens at perfect angles unlocks a lot of Murray’s best actions. The Heat’s zone defense was able to frustrate Denver’s two-man game enough to win Game 2, but the Nuggets — Murray and Jokic in particular — had all the answers in Game 3.
Denver’s entire offense is built around dribble handoffs and pick-and-rolls that feature Murray and Jokic over and over. If the Heat can disrupt these plays, they can win, but that has yet to happen consistently. Jokic and Murray currently rank first and second in scoring in these Finals, and if that continues, it’s virtually impossible to see them losing the series.
Remember the version of Jimmy Butler who averaged 37.6 points per game on 60% shooting in the first round? He hasn’t been seen for a while. Unlike Jokic and Murray, Butler has yet to score 30 in the Finals and ranks fourth in the series in scoring — second on his own team behind Bam Adebayo.
The Heat are 5-0 this postseason when Butler scores 30 or more; they are 8-8 when he does not. However, most of his 30-point games came early in the playoffs. Since returning from a sprained ankle that caused him to miss Game 2 of the conference semifinals against the New York Knicks, Butler has topped 30 points just once. He’s also shot under 50% in 12 of 14 games.
Butler’s scoring portfolio isn’t complicated — he’s an attack guard who thrives in the paint, in the midrange and at the free throw line. His field goals largely consist of layups and short-range jumpers with a sprinkling of 3s added in for good measure, but make no mistake he does most of his damage near the bucket. Just ask the Milwaukee Bucks.
In the first-round series against the Bucks, Butler averaged an incredible 19.3 points in the paint per game, the most of any player in the first round of the playoffs. But Denver has held Jimmy Buckets to just 8.7 points in the paint per game, which ranks fifth in this series.
According to Second Spectrum, Butler leads all postseason players with 397 total drives, (17.2 per game) and the 314 times he’s finished those drives with a direct action (shot, foul, turnover), Miami has averaged 1.10 points. Butler’s drives are a signature element of Miami’s postseason attack, but they have not been effective against Denver and Aaron Gordon, the primary defender on Butler.
According to Second Spectrum, Butler’s drives that lead to direct actions are yielding just 0.77 points in the Finals, and the ones that end in shots are yielding 0.75 points per drive. That’s not good.
In the Milwaukee series, Butler averaged 7.2 made layups per game; through three games in the Finals, that number is just 2.7. He ranks sixth in this series in made layups and dunks, trailing Christian Braun, who has only played 43 minutes in the Finals.
Butler is the driving force of Miami’s offense, and those rim attacks are the heart of his game. If the Heat want to get back to the promised land, they are going to need Butler to drive them there.
3. Get hot from 3-point land (again)
Following Denver’s Game 1 win, Nuggets coach Michael Malone expressed dismay at his defense, which allowed Miami to take 16 wide-open 3-point shots; the Heat simply missed 11 of them. That critique turned out to be prescient, as the Heat continued to let it fly from beyond the arc in Game 2, making 48.6% of their 3s, including 9-for-17 on looks classified as either open or wide open.
In Game 3, Miami attempted 35 3-pointers — the same number the Heat shot in Game 2 — but made just 11 of them. If the Heat are going to win Game 4, they must churn out more points from beyond the arc, and that will come down to players like Max Strus, who has taken more 3s than anyone in this series, but has made just five of his 23 attempts thus far.
In their lone win, Miami scored 51 points from downtown. That’s not a sustainable number, but in a world where Butler isn’t getting buckets with his drives, that kind of output from beyond the arc might be Miami’s only chance, which means Strus has to get hot and players like Duncan Robinson, Kyle Lowry, and Caleb Martin have to make their catch-and-shoot looks when they get them.
The Heat are shooting 37.6% from 3 in this series — a significant increase from the 34.4% they shot in the regular season — but that number is misleading. In their two losses, the Heat shot 32.4% from deep, which simply won’t get it done. They can’t survive both a big downturn in Butler’s production and cold shooting from long range, especially against an offense led by the Jokic-Murray partnership.
4. Win the interior battle
As important as 3-point shooting can be, Denver won Game 3 in the trenches (the Nuggets were just 5-for-18 themselves from beyond the arc, the fewest made 3s by any team in a Finals victory in the past decade). If Miami is going to earn a different result in Game 4, the work starts near the basket. The Nuggets not only scored 60 points in the paint, but they also outrebounded the Heat by 25.
The Nuggets became just the third team to go plus-25 in rebounds and plus-25 in points in the paint in a playoff game over the past 25 seasons. That contextualizes just how lopsided Game 3 was near the hoop.
Miami is a smaller team and it doesn’t need to win these battles outright, but the Heat can’t get dominated like they did Wednesday. It’s one thing for the 6-foot-11, 284-pound Jokic to get going in the lane against a smaller Adebayo, but Braun — a 6-foot-6, 220-pound rookie — finished 7-for-7 in the paint in Game 3. That tied for the third-most makes in the paint without a miss in a Finals game in the past 25 years. Meanwhile, on the other end, Miami shot 26% on layups and dunks on half-court sets in Game 3, according to Second Spectrum. That is the second-worst field goal percentage on those shots by any team in a game this postseason.
Through three games, Denver is dominating this series inside the arc; the Nuggets have made 26 more 2-point baskets than Miami has, and their 2-point field goal percentage is 59.6, compared to Miami’s 44.6.
Coming into the playoffs, the biggest question for Denver was defense; the Nuggets ranked 12th, 12th, and 16th in defensive efficiency among the 16 postseason qualifiers in the 2020, 2021 and 2022 playoffs. This time around, Denver ranks sixth. The Nuggets followed up a lapse-filled Game 2 performance with their best defensive game of the series in Game 3. The effort started with Jokic, who hasn’t exactly been Dikembe Mutombo in the paint throughout his career, but was outstanding as a shot defender, holding the Heat to 16% shooting (3-for-19) when contesting shots as either the primary or help defender, according to ESPN tracking.
It’s unrealistic to expect Miami to control all four of these keys in Game 4, but the Heat have to find something they can dominate on offense or defense. They can’t expect to win if Butler isn’t effective, Jokic and Murray dominate and Denver continues to own the paint and the glass like they did in Game 3. It’s time for Heat Culture to show up.