What we learned about the Heat after Game 1 of the NBA Finals

Jun 1, 2023; Denver, CO, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) dribbles the ball against Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) during the third quarter in game one of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 1, 2023; Denver, CO, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) dribbles the ball against Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) during the third quarter in game one of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /
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DENVER — The Miami Heat went into Denver and got crushed in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, 104-93. Is this a sign of what’s to come in Sunday’s Game 2, or can the Heat find some answers against Nikola Jokic and company? Here’s what we learned in Thursday’s Game 1.

The Nuggets are big, much bigger than the Heat

It only took a few minutes into Game 1 for the Nuggets to establish their brawn. Denver scored a whopping 20 of its 46 points in the paint in the first quarter, pounding Miami’s smaller defenders with shoulder-leading layups and slicing in the paint for easy shots at the rim. Jokic started with just four points, but also had six assists while Aaron Gordon dominated with 12 points in the opening period. Gordon routinely got a smaller defender switched onto him and went to work, using his strength to muscle his way to the basket.

The Heat cleaned some of this up as the game went on, and Gordon finished with just 16 points. But it’s also clear that the Nuggets are the much bigger, stronger and physical team. The Heat can muck things up with some zone and fighting not to switch specific matchups, but it’s something they have to deal with.

Jokic was happy to pass more than he shot (14 assists to just 12 field goal attempts) but if he decides to steer his game into more scoring, the Heat also have to deal with stuff like this more often. As good defense as Bam Adebayo can play, he’s just giving up too much size to the two-time MVP.

Miami’s equalizer will be the 3-pointer

If the Nuggets are going to win the battle in the paint, then Miami has to outscore them from beyond the arc. The Heat did that on Thursday, scoring 15 more points from distance than the Nuggets, but they need to do it more efficiently. The Heat shot 13 of 39 (33.3%) where their target is closer to 40%, as it was against Milwaukee and Boston.

Max Strus (0 for 9) and Duncan Robinson (1 for 5) need to be better. Both missed heaps of open looks they they normally make.

“We also have ignitable guys,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You see a couple go through and that also can become an avalanche.”

The Heat missed six of their first eight 3-point attempts, and it felt like it set the tone.

Even if the offense runs through Adebayo, the Heat will need more from Butler

Miami’s plan on offense was to run things through Adebayo, who would redistribute the ball from the middle of the court. Dribble handoffs, short roll passes, dishes from the triple-threat spot — Adebayo brought it all to the table.

Adebayo finished with 26 points and five assists. (He would have had more than five assists had his teammates made more shots, but that’s how it goes.) As a scorer, he found creases in Denver’s defense for drop-off passes…

Got to his spot for mid-range floaters…

And was even able to drive against an over-eager defense…

The Heat need Adebayo to be this aggressive all series, but they’ll also need more from Butler, who had just 13 points on 6 of 14 shooting and — most glaringly — zero free throws.

If Adebayo is going to be this assertive, Butler needs to follow. Not just to narrow the margin from the foul line (two foul shots for Miami, 20 for Denver) but also to get the Nuggets starters into foul trouble and force their less-effective bench players onto the court. Butler understands this, and vowed after the game to make amends.

“I have to be a little bit more aggressive,” Butler said. “I’ve got to put pressure on the rim. Me with no free throws, that was all on myself, nobody else.”