DENVER — Despite losing by double-digits in the opening bout of the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat left Ball Arena on Thursday night confident that they can rebound in time for Sunday’s Game 2 against the Denver Nuggets.
“We probably want that game back,” Caleb Martin said. “But at this point, it is what it is. You learn from it. That’s the beauty of the playoffs, it’s the first to four.”
Fortunately for Miami, there are some obvious areas of improvement from Game 1, specifically when it comes to 3-point shooting and drawing fouls. Here are three players who can drive that improvement and make things more competitive.
The Heat shot 13 of 39 (33.3%) from 3-point range in Game 1, fine but not good enough after shooting 45% in the first round and 43% in the conference finals. To win this series, the Heat will likely need to reach 40% from distance. Of Miami’s 26 misses, Max Strus accounted for nine of them on an 0-for-9 shooting night. Make a few more and the Heat are where they need to be, the Nuggets are running off of fewer live balls in transition and the entire game might have had a different tenor.
“They are ignitable,” coach Erik Spoelstra said when asked about Strus and Caleb Martin, who shot 1 for 7 from the field in Game 1. “I love those looks that those guys get. I love it when they see a couple, two or three go down; that can turn into five or six.”
When the shot wasn’t falling, Strus found a way to make an impact as a pick-and-roll partner with Bam Adebayo. There are several examples in Game 1 of Strus coming off an Adebayo screen with Nikola Jokic dropped in coverage, getting Jokic to commit to Strus as the ball-handler and then hitting Adebayo for an in-rhythm shot.
“You’re not always going to be able to make all the shots that you want,” Spoelstra said. “You have to find different ways to impact the game.”
Duncan Robinson (1 for 6 overall, 1 for 5 on 3s) accounted for four of Miami’s missed 3-pointers in Game 1 but his off-ball movement will be key to getting the Nuggets to defend in space. When Robinson is moving like this, he’s difficult to track. When he starts making 3s, defenses have to commit to keeping a body on him, which opens up room for Miami’s rim attackers.
Robinson’s two-man game with Adebayo, specially the dribble handoff action, can lead to openings against a Nuggets team that would prefer not to put two on the ball in those situations.
Robinson will get open shots in this series, and he has to make them. If he doesn’t, he risks losing minutes to Tyler Herro, who will reportedly try to make his NBA Finals debut in Game 2.
Jimmy Butler entered the NBA Finals averaging 9.1 free throw attempts per game, third-most in the playoffs and by far the leader of players remaining. But he didn’t take a single foul shot in Game 1.
According to Second Spectrum, Butler attempted just two shots on eight drives on Thursday, deciding to pass on the other six. Prior to Game 1, Butler had been shooting on 48% of his drives in the playoffs. So it’s no wonder that Butler didn’t attempt a single free throw.
In all, the Heat attempted just two free throws the entire game, setting a new NBA record for the fewest free-throw attempts in a playoff game. They were outscored by the Nuggets by 14 points at the foul line as a result. Drawing more free throws alone could have narrowed the margin in Miami’s 11-point defeat.
“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. So we’ll definitely correct that the next game, but only I can do that.”