NBA Finals analysis: Denver Nuggets vs. Miami Heat’s zone defense

If there’s a path to the championship for Miami after Denver’s convincing Game 1 win in the NBA Finals, it will involve smacking the immaculately synchronized Nuggets out of their rhythm.

Zone defense briefly did the trick in the series-opener.

The underdogs from South Beach narrowed a 24-point deficit to nine late in the fourth quarter Thursday night. That comeback amounted to nothing, but it did offer a glimpse of the version of the Heat that hasn’t folded during this playoff gauntlet.

The Nuggets missed 10 of their first 13 shots in the fourth quarter as Miami went back to a zone defense, which Eric Spoelstra had also deployed earlier in the game. The acclaimed coach relishes the opportunity to mix up defensive looks.

What happened during that drought, and how does it pertain to Game 2 on Sunday (6 p.m. MT)? After watching film, Michael Malone and players generally felt content with their shot selection.

“We got the looks we needed,” Jamal Murray said. “We just didn’t knock them down. If we knock them down, I think they will start to break up the zone a little bit and go back to man.”

But that comment reveals the reality of the Nuggets’ psyche: They want Miami going back to man. They can exploit size mismatches at almost every position, especially the wings and post. Aaron Gordon feasted early in Game 1.

The solution is to generate more against the zone and force Spoelstra’s hand. Even though Denver felt as though the fix is as simple as making open shots — especially true in the first 90 seconds of the quarter — there were a couple of bad habits that are easy to fall into against a zone. Identifying those can help.

“We worked on it today,” Bruce Brown said, “so hopefully we can execute tomorrow.”

When the offense was reduced to passing around the perimeter or one player dribbling until he found shooting space in the zone, the Nuggets didn’t get rewarded by the rim. When they moved off-ball and slashed to the basket, especially behind the back line of the zone, they didn’t need to rely on fortuitous bounces.

Around the 10:30 mark, Murray held the ball. Jeff Green lifted from the block toward the perimeter, pulling Duncan Robinson up high. Miami had three at the top of the zone, two down low. Nikola Jokic dropped lower from the left elbow, his back to Bam Adebayo, while Murray made a move to the left. With Robinson cleared out of the paint, Kyle Lowry floated toward Jokic with potential weak side help, leaving Brown open in the opposite corner. Murray could have tried the difficult cross-court pass to Brown or an entry feed to Jokic, which could have given Brown room to cut backdoor and Jokic a better angle to thread one of his beautiful passes.

Instead, Murray wedgied a step-back three with a hand in his face.

On the next possession, Jokic rumbled downhill from the top of the key after a kick-out from Green. The MVP drew a double-team, leaving Green open behind the zone and under the basket, but Jokic pulled up and shot over his two defenders instead. It’s the kind of shot Denver is accustomed to seeing him make, but he didn’t get a kind roll on this one.

He learned from it. On the possession after that, Green made a baseline cut during a two-man action between Jokic and Murray. Jokic received a pass in the middle of the zone, and Heat defenders flocked to him at the foul line, like miller moths to a Denver lamp in May. Green was open again at the lower level. This time, Jokic fed him for an easy layup.

During the 3-for-13 stretch, one made basket was a credit to that backdoor cut, and another was a credit to a shot-fake that allowed Denver to get below the zone. A defender went soaring past Michael Porter Jr. when he pumped in the corner, then his drive drew Adebayo and allowed Jokic to slip underneath. Bounce pass. Layup.

The Nuggets are more than capable of catching fire from 3-point range, but against the fourth-quarter zone, they started to shoot themselves in the foot when they settled. After Jokic went to the bench from approximately 7:15 to 4:45 remaining, Denver had a string of three consecutive possessions end with contested, long-range 3s after minimal off-ball movement. Murray, Porter and Brown all missed.

“There definitely was a period in that game where we were just launching,” Porter said. “… I don’t think we’ve really seen a zone the way they do it, so it’s hard to make adjustments in the middle of a game when you don’t really know what’s going on.”

The lead was 10 when Jokic checked back in. But with four minutes left, he helped get Denver out of its own way.

Jokic briefly parked at the 3-point line while Murray had the ball, slipped to the middle of the zone to free himself and reel in Murray’s pass, then forced Adebayo into a decision. Aaron Gordon was lurking on the baseline, threatening another easy layup beneath the zone if Adebayo stepped up on Jokic. The center already had double-digit assists. Adebayo elected to sit back near Gordon and half-contest Jokic’s shot. Those 8-foot teardrops in the lane are automatic for him.

Denver led, 94-82. Jokic was awakened. He scored six more in the last four minutes, poking holes in the defense.

“We got shots that we liked,” Brown said.

What makes these Nuggets stand out in a league of fallen high seeds is their ability to generate a good shot attempt on almost every possession, against anything thrown at them. If that resolve wavers against a team that uses more zone than most of the NBA, Spoelstra won’t hesitate to abandon man. His zone already shattered the Celtics in crunch-time moments. Movement matters.

As the Nuggets noted, so does shot-making.

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