To win the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat will have to do something every other team that has faced the Denver Nuggets has tried to do and failed: Slow down Nikola Jokic.
Dating back to Jan. 27, 2021, Jokic has won his last six meetings against the Heat. He’s averaged 22.2 points on 63.5% shooting, 12.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists in those games. Those numbers are in line with Jokic’s typical averages, and don’t suggest that Miami has ever had an answer for limiting the two-time MVP to a meaningful degree.
In these playoffs, Jokic has been downright dominant, posting 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists. The title of the NBA’s best player is in reach.
In Denver’s first round matchup against the Timberwolves, Jokic was unbothered by Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns. In the next round against the Suns, Deandre Ayton did little to make him sweat. The Lakers threw Anthony Davis, Rui Hachimura and even LeBron James at Jokic, rolling out several different looks to slow him down. No dice. Jokic and the Nuggets dispatched the Lakers in a clean sweep.
Now the Heat get their chance. Bam Adebayo, Erik Spoelstra and a cohort of plucky defenders present a mix of defensive talent, basketball IQ and scheme versatility unmatched by Denver’s previous opponents.
Adebayo has been perhaps the postseason’s best defender (the other candidate would be Davis). But Jokic has bested Adebayo in their matchups this season, shooting 9 for 15 and recording eight assists to zero turnovers in the two times they faced each other. Jokic’s size and strength is a tough matchup for the undersized Adebayo.
I mean, what do you do against this?
Adebayo has tried fronting Jokic. It hasn’t mattered.
But the Heat don’t have many other options. They could try Kevin Love on Jokic, but that puts Love in a precarious position when Jokic is the screener in pick-and-rolls. I’d hesitate to have Love or Cody Zeller defend Jokic at any point that Jamal Murray is also on the court. Omer Yurtseven is probably not ready for this stage.
Perhaps Spoelstra can take a page out of the Lakers’ playbook and deploy a wing — Jimmy Butler, Caleb Martin or Haywood Highsmith — but even Butler is smaller than James and Hachimura and is probably giving up too much size.
Miami’s best answer is Adebayo. Not just because he appears to be the only option on Jokic, but also because he is comfortable switching the Jokic and Murray two-man game that has produced bounties of fruitful possessions for the Nuggets in these playoffs.
This is the key difference between Adebayo and Davis. As the Nuggets and, before them, the Warriors showed, the best way to neutralize Davis is to get him in space away from the rim. Drag him into a switch with a shot-making guard like Murray or Steph Curry, and opportunities can open up behind him.
That isn’t the case with Adebayo, who might be the best switch and isolation defender in the league. The Heat can live with Adebayo on an island with Murray and trust him to blow up some low-hanging pick-and-rolls the Nuggets have feasted on in previous series.
Trouble arrives when Jokic gets Adebayo by himself near the rim. Will, and how soon, will Miami send a double team? Will the Heat start Love again to provide some help-side size? Can Butler or Martin provide any level of additional interference?
One thing we do know: The Heat will throw a variety of looks at Jokic to try to keep him guessing. Spoelstra is in his bag this postseason, and I won’t be surprised if we some new wrinkle in every game this series.
The Heat are prepared to execute Spo’s vision. They are practiced at toggling between schemes in an instant. They can switch everything on one possession, play drop-style man-to-man on the next, then morph into a 2-3 zone in a blink. Just ask Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum how difficult it can be to score against Miami’s guess-who defense.
The zone is an interesting player in this series. The Heat have played more zone this season than any team in the last two decades. They have several variations —standard 2-3, press 2-3, 1-1-3, box-and-1 — but each is designed to take away openings for cuts and drives to the rim.
Miami’s problem is that Jokic is a walking zone buster. The Nuggets scored an immaculate 1.21 points per possession against zone coverage this season. The Heat are aware of this, and so they used zone on only nine possessions against Denver this season. The Nuggets scored 15 points on those possessions.
Still, expect Spoelstra to try it. The last time these teams met was in February. Much has changed for the Heat since then, including new variations of zone and the addition of much-needed size in Love and Zeller.
In the NBA, there is no such thing as stopping great players. Best you can do is try to take something away. Jokic is big and skilled enough to deliver any pass he wants to any teammate on any part of the floor. What is two or three passes away for some players is one pass away for Jokic. The Heat defense will have to be on a string, ready to react in an instant and scramble on the next.
Best the Heat can do is try to take away the backdoor cuts Denver’s high-powered offense generates so well. The Heat are experts at crowding passing lanes in the paint, showing hands and nudging just enough to take the passing window away without leaving their man too open on the perimeter. Doing that would force the Nuggets into being more of a jump-shooting team.
“This is one of those series where it becomes very dangerous when you let his teammates get involved,” Adebayo said during his pre-Finals media session. “He can make those incredible passes.”
The Nuggets and Heat are the two best 3-point shooting teams of the postseason. If, and when, either team cools off will be a major factor in this series. Both teams have gotten this far with a quality-over-quantity approach. Force Denver’s shooters to take shots they otherwise wouldn’t take — on a stage many of them have never been on — could put them in a pressure cooker.
Of course, these are just words on a page. Stopping, and even slowing, Jokic is much easier said than done. Every coach must have felt somewhat good about his plan heading into each series, only for Jokic to render it useless. No team has been better this postseason at drawing up and executing a scheme than the Heat, but Spoelstra and his players have their work cut out for them.