Much of the talk prior to Game 1 was about the Miami Heat’s varying defensive schemes, especially the use of the zone. Mainly because of Nikola Jokic’s ability to scan the floor and destroy zones from the middle/top, Erik Spoelstra was a bit more shy than usual in using it.
But down by 21 points entering the fourth quarter, the Heat had to try anything. So they resorted to the zone and it worked, with Miami winning the last quarter by 10, allowing only 20 points on 35% from the floor for Denver, with no threes made. A small wrinkle that could dictate some changes for Game 2.
The very first play of the fourth quarter is a clear shift on what the Heat were doing and it can create problems to Denver. Haywood Highsmith got the steal and layup, but it’s the full-court pressure that we should keep in mind. It forces the Nuggets to delay the initiation of their offense and can sometimes lead to errors.
The next two plays saw Jokic cut through the middle of the zone, receiving a pass from Jamal Murray and then both changed roles, with Murray acting as the cutter and Jokic the passer. On both, the Nuggets kept their shooters in the corners to spread the Heat’s backline (this will be important in a bit), leaving Bam Adebayo in the middle to deal with them. He forced two turnaround jumpers and the Heat kept on chipping away.
A Heat miss on the other end brought the man-to-man defense back for the Heat, but the Nuggets looked confused and the play ended on a missed contested stepback three by Murray.
By scoring on the other end, the Heat were able to employ the zone once again. Denver could not get into the middle by passing the ball, so Jeff Green drove and kicked it out to Jokic. Highsmith’s length and lateral mobility were enough to take away the triple, stay with Jokic and contest the shot for another miss.
The Heat were on an 11-0 run and threatening to pull closer, just like they did so many times in the Playoffs. So the Nuggets adjusted. Jokic screens for Murray in the direction of Highsmith, so it has to be the smaller Vincent to go with him. The ball finds Jokic in the middle and this time, Jeff Green doesn’t stay in the corner. Cuts through the baseline and uses his size to score over Duncan Robinson. An upgrade from the first two plays of the quarter, which saw Green staying in the corner.
The Heat miss a shot but with the ball going out of bounds, there’s another opportunity to go back to the zone. Once again, the Nuggets pass the ball around the perimeter, unable to find a safe pass for Jokic, who has Highsmith or Bam always roaming around him. Without touching the paint, the play ends with a miss from three by Porter.
The Heat miss on the other end and the Nuggets push the pace after the rebound, with Miami scrambling to match up. As they did so many times, the Nuggets find the mismatch inside and Gabe Vincent sends Jokic to the line. A Heat out-of-bounds turnover means another opportunity for the zone. The Nuggets try a different approach, by having Jokic posting up Highsmith. Here’s the result.
The Heat turn the ball right over, which leads to a Jokic layup when the Heat players are trying to get back. Miami scores on the other end, going to the zone again. It’s almost midway through the fourth quarter when the Nuggets finally get a bucket against the zone, on a Murray turnaround fadeaway. A shot the Heat will live with.
Murray tries to go again at Highsmith, but look at how he denies the penetration, with quick steps and some physicality, forcing the Nuggets point guard to pass to Brown and a low percentage shot, with Vincent right there.
At this point in the game, Jokic is on the bench but the Heat’s inability to score has them defending man-to-man, with constant switching and forcing the Nuggets to long, contested shots. Jokic subs back in and goes right back to posting up Highsmith, trying to find space. Bam comes to help, Butler closes the pass to Gordon and still is able to contest the Caldwell-Pope three.
The Heat claw their way back again, down 10 with four minutes to go. The Nuggets decide to attack the zone with a double drag screen up top, with Butler and Highsmith getting stuck in no-man’s land. Jokic cuts through the middle and scores on a little push shot, with Bam having to deal with him and Gordon in his back.
With a nine-point deficit, the Heat needed a perfect stretch to finish the game. But the Denver Nuggets get the ball on Highsmith’s side, which leaves Vincent to deal with Jokic, with the pass entering easily. Vincent comes to try to help, ball out to KCP and he hits the pull up after attacking the closeout, in what would be the dagger.
The Nuggets got only 0.62 points per possession in the fourth quarter against the Heat zone. Eight points on 4 for 11 shooting, 0 for 4 from 3 and 2 turnovers are encouraging signs for a Heat team looking for answers to stop the Nuggets offense.
This doesn’t mean they’ll just set up a zone all game on Sunday and it will magically make them winners. As Miami adjusts before that matchup, so will the Nuggets.
But the zone did give some life to the Heat and Spoelstra will feel a bit more confident in using it against Jokic and for larger stretches of the game. This probably also means more minutes for Highsmith, who played really well in Game 1 and should be the main disruptor in this type of defense. If the Heat can reduce the amount of touches and the length of those same touches by Jokic, forcing the other guys to make decisions against the zone, then something will be working out well for Miami.