What The Nuggets-Heat Regular Season Games Can Tell Us About Their NBA Finals Matchup

Orlando Robinson. Bones Hyland. Vlatko Čančar. DeAndre Jordan. Ish Smith. Thomas Bryant. Jamaree Bouyea. All of these NBA players had sizable roles in at least one of the two games between the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets during the regular season, when Denver squeaked out a pair of narrow victories. Aaron Gordon, Jamal Murray, Tyler Herro, Caleb Martin, and Kyle Lowry were each sidelined for one or two of those games, as well.

As these teams prepare for their NBA Finals clash, gleaning information from their regular season bouts is a delicate dance. They are much different squads since they met in December and February. Both rotations have evolved. Denver’s defense has dialed in after a mercurial 82 games. The Heat’s overall quality has ratcheted up after a mercurial 84 games. An eight seed they may be, but they’ve played like the class of the East for the past six weeks. That’s why they’re making their second Finals appearance in four years.

But a delicate dance is not synonymous with an impossible dance. There are indicators to help inform expectations for these Finals — that’s always how the regular season should be treated. There are subplots to provide a compass for the playoffs. The win-loss records do not tell the whole story, just as Denver sweeping Miami in the regular season does not and should not prematurely write the endgame of this series.

So, let’s highlight a handful of clips from their two games and touch on why they may be relevant entering Thursday’s Game 1.

Denver’s ball-screen defense

According to Sports Info Solutions (SIS), the Heat lead the playoffs in ball screens and dribble handoffs per 100 possessions and are fourth in points per chance (1.081) among the 16 playoff clubs. The Nuggets’ defense, meanwhile, is 10th in points allowed per chance (1.022). They’ve toggled across playing Nikola Jokic at the level, in drop, and even switching occasionally. Bam Adebayo is a gifted short-roll playmaker. Shooters like Lowry, Herro (assuming he returns), Duncan Robinson, Max Strus, and Gabe Vincent can pair with him in pick-and-rolls or DHOs to stress Denver.

In the play above, Denver elected to keep Jokic at the level of the pick and give Adebayo the 4-on-3 scenario, while Jimmy Butler pinged from dunker spot to dunker spot. Miami loves stationing Butler (or others) in the dunker spot while running pick-and-rolls or DHOs. Butler gravitates toward those short midrange jumpers. Maybe Adebayo’s floater is on point. Perhaps Butler is burying baseline bucket after baseline bucket. What if Denver instead opens with Jokic in drop to avoid granting Adebayo 4-on-3 opportunities and gauges the temperature on Miami’s shooters?

I’m also fascinated to see how Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, Christian Braun (assuming he sees a bigger role than the end of last series), Jeff Green, and Michael Porter Jr. fare chasing or top-locking Miami’s perimeter snipers. The onus rests on them, Jokic’s execution across varying schemes, and the coaching staff’s willingness to employ the proper coverage and shift when necessary. While the Los Angeles Lakers challenged Denver’s improved playoff defense with their rim pressure, Miami will test Denver’s improved playoff defense with its shooting depth and DHO savvy. That’s not a dynamic the Nuggets have really faced thus far and how they approach and respond to it will be important.

Jimmy Butler as a screener

During the regular season, according to SIS, Butler averaged 11.4 screens per 100 possessions and generated 1.122 points per chance (84th percentile). Against Denver, those marks increased to 13.7 and 1.923 PPC. In the playoffs, they’re down to 9.3 and 1.05.

The Heat like using Butler in this realm to generate mismatches for him and get him downhill without requiring him to constantly do the heavy lifting as a slasher. Much like LeBron James in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, Butler targeted Murray as a post scorer when they faced off. I expect him to do the same the next couple weeks. He’s also comfortable attacking Porter in space. There’s likely going to be a mix of Butler screening and rolling, and Butler screening and hunting mismatches.

Aside from Game 1 last round, Denver’s been pretty good about insulating Murray and Porter by having them show or bringing a second defender off a less threatening offensive cog. Miami’s a pretty well-rounded rotation offensively. How the Nuggets handle Butler’s screening and its ripple effects — and whether the Heat embrace it more often again — will matter. If Gordon shows, can the Heat ball-handlers deliver timely, accurate feeds to a rolling Butler? Where is Adebayo positioned in these instances? Is he occupying his defender or will the tag be readily available?

In the second round, the New York Knicks commonly ignored Adebayo off the ball, so Miami placed him in the weakside corner and would flip the court to flow into DHOs for shooters. With Adebayo’s screening prowess and a big man absent from the play, chances for open threes were possible. I wonder if we see this arrangement when Butler is screening and rolling to keep the Nuggets’ defensive gambit honest against Adebayo and try to manufacture more space for Butler.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s offensive usage

Each series, Denver’s opponent has tried to stash a defender on Caldwell-Pope, given the other options are Jokic, Murray, Gordon, and Porter, all of whom tend to invoke more defensive worry and offensive emphasis. Usually, that defender is a guard (Mike Conley Jr., Chris Paul, D’Angelo Russell, for example). This round, it might be Vincent, who’s a pretty adept defender but nonetheless on the smaller side and concedes some size to Caldwell-Pope. When Miami put Herro on Caldwell-Pope in December, Denver deployed its floor-spacing wing in a few different manners (DHO, pick-and-roll, pindown into flare) with Jokic to exploit that matchup. Vincent is a much better defender than Herro, but the salient theme was the upshot of trying to avoid switching a guard onto Jokic and what that opened for Caldwell-Pope.

Caldwell-Pope’s playoff usage rate is 12 percent (13.1 percent in the regular season), so the Nuggets aren’t completely reorienting the offense to magnify any mismatch he’s been enjoying. But he’s averaging 11.7 points per game (62.2 percent true shooting), canning 41.1 percent of his triples and 59.5 percent of his twos. That’s quite the production for a fifth option.

Denver is absolutely comfortable treating him as more than a spot-up shooter because he is more than that and is receiving the assignments to showcase as much. He’s been money on the one dribble pull-up and fostered DHO chemistry with Jokic. The foul-line jumper is a favorite. The Nuggets are the best offense in basketball. Their fifth option being capable of versatile usage to punish favorable matchups helps exemplify why. This offense is layered and potent.

Miami’s post defense against Nikola Jokic

One of Adebayo’s defensive superlatives is his ability to front defenders. He crouches low, wins the center of gravity duel, rockets his arms into the air, and bounces around to make entry passes a hellacious endeavor. Against Jokic and the Nuggets this year, that trend continued.

Jokic averaged 23 points (74.8 percent true shooting), 12 rebounds, and 10 assists in those games. He was sensational. Yet his usage rate was only 22.9 percent, well below his regular season number of 27.3. Adebayo’s fronting and denying played a role in that watered down involvement. Miami’s defense will live with that sort of usage. Denver’s offense likely will not be content with it.

I could see Adebayo fronting Jokic and Butler playing off of Gordon to roam on the backside. That’s two stupendous defenders playing preferred defensive roles. The counter to fronting is what Čančar does above by flashing to the middle and simplifying the distance and angle of the entry pass. Strus stepping up against him is a mistake. This is presumably the duty Gordon will navigate when Jokic is posting up from a static position. Miami should be content with foul-line jumpers from Gordon. His decision-making and reads in these spots could be crucial.

Denver could also just organize post-ups for Jokic on the move and stymie Adebayo’s fronting altogether. That’s part of why he’s the game’s premier offensive engine. Adebayo is a masterful defender and arguably the best at fronting in the NBA. It’s a genuinely useful tactic ahead of this series, but might be rendered moot because of Jokic’s wide-ranging versatility.

(The Heat guarded this set better a possession later by crowding Jokic off the screen and switching, but I don’t think Butler on Jokic in the post is where they want to be much.)

Another counter is the Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll, which Denver spammed late to considerable success in its December win over Miami. If Adebayo’s fronting bears fruit early, Jokic may captain the point guard position and initiate possessions more frequently. There are options.

This isn’t to predetermine the fate of the Heat. Erik Spoelstra’s schematic imagination obviously spans much wider and more impactful than mine. But I do know that he, Adebayo, Butler, and the rest of this defense are encountering their stiffest test yet and the stiffest test basically any defense can encounter these days. I look forward to watching it unfold.