With the Nuggets up 3-1 in the NBA Finals after winning the last two games in Miami, we may be looking at a “Gentleman’s Sweep” with the series headed back to Denver for Game Five. It was just two games ago that Miami had stolen home court advantage with a win in Denver. Many were saying that Erik Spoelstra had solved the Nikola Jokic Puzzle: Let him score and cut off all his passing lanes. In Miami’s win in Game Two, Joker scored 41 but had only 4 assists. Heading back to Miami, people were even saying that the Zombie Heat now controlled the series.
Uh, no. The narrative after Game Two was just a bit too glib and put too much stock in a small sample size — one game. And the Miami purported Joker-stopping theory ignored the fact that the Nuggets offense in Game Two was hyper-efficient. The Nuggets shot 52% from the floor and scored 108 points on just 75 shots. Compare that to Denver’s Game Four win — the Nuggets shot 49% and needed four more shots (79) to score the same number of points that they did in Game Two’s loss — 108. The outcome drives the narrative, as everyone complimented the Nuggets’ offense Friday night even though it was less effective than in their loss.
The difference in the two games was at the other end of the court. In their loss in Game Two, the Nuggets allowed the Heat to score 111 points on 78 shots. In Game Four, the Heat also took 78 shots but only scored 95: a 16-point difference. Three-point shooting can explain almost all of that difference, as the Heat went 17 for 35 from three in their win, but only 8 for 25 in their Game Four loss.
From this ex-coach’s viewpoint, the difference in the two games was Denver’s defense. And the difference was execution, not effort — unless we are talking about mental effort. Numerous mental breakdowns, primarily switching when there was no reason to do so, led to wide-open shots for Miami’s shooters in Game Two. Friday night, even the Heat’s made threes were well contested. A team like Miami relies on ball and player movement to get open shots because other than Playoff Jimmy Butler, the Heat players have trouble creating their own shot. As such, when the Nuggets locked down mentally on defense, the Heat offense struggled.
This problem was most apparent with Miami’s starting guards. Gabe Vincent has two excellent shooting games to start the series, scoring 19 and 23 points, shooting a combined 9 for 16 from three. But in Games Three and Four, he and fellow guard Max Strus combined for only 12 points in the two games. Put another way, they each averaged 3 points per game. Strus was especially cold, making no shots in Game Four and only one in Game Three. If they don’t play better, and soon, a Gentleman’s Sweep is the most likely result of Game Five.
- Miami’s guards are not the only players having an up and down series. The Nuggets rookie Christian Braun (pronounced “Brown”) had a remarkable Game Three, making 7 of 8 shots. His only miss was a three-pointer from the corner which hit the side of the backboard, meaning that his shots did not hit the rim all night. Braun followed that up with an 0 for 1 game Friday night with no points, one rebound and no assists. Welcome to the Finals, rookie.
- What happened to home court advantage? The home team is 1-3 in these Finals. And this is not a one-year blip. Ignoring 2020, the home teams and road teams in the Finals since 2018 have each won 13 games. And in the 2020 Finals, no home team won a game — all games were played in the Orlando Bubble, and the Magic were not in the Finals.
- Before Game Three, a friend and I were discussing his “third-option” theory: Games are decided by which team’s third option had the better game. While the identity of the third option could vary from game to game, I liked the theory. Of course, Game Three destroyed the theory when twin triple-doubles from Joker and Murray keyed the Nuggets win. None of the other Nuggets had great games, other than possibly young Braun.
- However, the “third option” theory had a good comeback in Game Four, as Aaron Gordon and Nuggets’ sixth man Bruce Brown (pronounced “Brown”) had big games. Combined, they went 19 for 26 from the floor, 6 for 11 from three. Gordon also had 7 boards and 6 assists. Before the Finals, Joker was quoted as saying that sometimes he was the best player on the Nuggets and sometimes it was another player, and he was fine with that. Friday night, Joker was absolutely thrilled when Gordon was the best player on the team. What a great teammate.
- One other Joker quote. After his unprecedented 32/21/10 triple-double in Game Three, a reporter asked him what he thought about doing something no-one else had ever done in a Finals game. His response: ”Not much.”