Playoff Breakdown: Throwing the Kitchen Sink at Murray & Jokic, No Easy 3s, Denver Adjusting to Butler

Insightlast year11 min readJohn Jablonka

So, I guess the series has definitely started. It’s always said that the series starts when the home team losses. But now both teams have won on the road and I think this is where it gets interesting.

But this wasn’t a good loss for the Miami Heat at home. This did feel much closer than it should’ve been throughout the first half, though. It was that second half that was the issue. And again there were issues on both ends.

The Denver Nuggets came out with a simple plan for the game. Spam Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic’s actions. That was it and that was all they needed.

The Nuggets didn’t even make or take a lot of 3s. They took only 18 3s. They made five in 2023 and won convincingly. And a lot of that has to do with their points in the paint and at the rim. They had 60(!) points in the paint. At that point, you don’t need many 3s to have a great offense.

If you combine that with having a 41 percent offensive rebounding percentage, getting 14-second chance points, and not turning the ball as much, then it’s tough to stop.

Here’s to put something into perspective. Christian Braun went 7-for-7 at the rim:

  • That’s more FGM at the rim than Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo combined
  • That’s more FGM and FGA at the rim than the entire Heat team outside of Butler and Adebayo had at the rim
  • That’s more FGM at the rim than the entire Heat team outside of Butler and Adebayo had at the rim and in the paint

I don’t know how one player that played under 20 minutes can have more makes at the rim than 11 players did in the paint.

That’s where the Heat’s issue came from. Not only couldn’t they stop Denver from scoring inside, but they themselves also couldn’t score inside. The Heat as a whole shot 17-for-46 in the paint. That will almost never win you a game. Shooting so poorly inside when you’re already struggling to get inside in the first place and not being able to get clean looks is a great way to not score 100 points.

Throwing Everything at Murray & Jokic

I talked about this in the previous breakdown how the Heat did a good job defending that action. Well, apparently, the Nuggets saw all of that said “bet” and then proceeded to spam pick-and-rolls and dribble-handoffs with Murray and Jokic over and over and over again throughout the game.

Because of such a high volume of that action and how easily at times they were able to get a good look, the Heat had to adjust by throwing any and every coverage to try and limit them.

Before we get to the specific coverages, here’s who defended Murray in game two vs game three:

  • Butler: 30.6 → 17.7
  • Caleb Martin: 11.9 → 24.5
  • Adebayo: 7.4 → 14.0
  • Vincent: 6.8 → 12.6

In game two, the main reason they defended the actions well was because Butler was on him for most of the possessions. But in this game, this wasn’t the same defensive performance from Butler.

And because of that, Martin got most of the responsibility and because of the different schemes, everyone else got equal responsibility. They literally had everyone get their share of guarding Murray.

The first coverage was the one that they’ve gone to the most. It was with Bam in a drop, at times at different depths, and when necessary, ending in a late switch:

I’d say this was their best option on defense and it would’ve been even better if Butler played better on that end. This meant that Jokic wasn’t going to get the ball, which is a win. But look at the shots that Murray is taking here. Most of them are tough, long 2s. That’s the best shot that they can give up, given their other options.

This isn’t Murray going downhill to the rim. This isn’t Murray getting to the rim for a kick to an open shooter. This isn’t Jokic getting the ball inside the paint for a shot. And most importantly, this isn’t Jokic getting the ball with a numbers advantage to find open guys. This is as good of a look as the Heat can give up.

And what makes this better is at times this wasn’t a good defense. Some of their switches were off and there were brief moments when either Adebayo or the ball handler’s defender hesitated on the switch, which gave Murray a better look.

Take the clip at the 28-second mark. Murray gets a drive going middle. Marin tries to recover then Adebayo steps in to try to take away the drive. But then for just a moment, both hesitate and aren’t sure whether to switch or not. Was Martin thinking that because Murray already had a step on him that the best option was for Adebayo to switch? Maybe Adebayo was thinking Martin was going to fight through and recover. Miscommunication on the switch ends with Murray getting a drive.

This happened on multiple occasions too. The switches, even when they were late ones, the execution weren’t as sharp.

But one of the main issues on that end that lead to so many different coverages all started with how he defended Murray. All of the defensive breakdowns started with Butler not being able to stay attached to Murray:

In a lot of these plays, Butler is slow to react, isn’t attached to Murray, trails on the play, or gets beat easily. And him being beaten and trailing the play that allows Murray to turn the corner is where Denver gets the advantage. That’s where the Heat had to adjust to different matchups and different coverages.

Later in the game, they adjusted by showing more help and soft-trapping Murray on his drive:

That did stop Murray and got the ball out of his hands, but, and this is a big but, because these PnRs are in the middle of the floor, it allows Jokic to roll into the paint, which means he can get the ball on the roll inside. Having Jokic getting the ball on the roll in the paint isn’t a good idea most of the time.

This isn’t considering what he could do as a passer but just the fact that he’s shooting 53.6 percent within 4-14 feet. With that not working, they chose to flat-out blitz Murray:

I’d say this was their worst possible option on defense because it’s too difficult having to defend two guys that can make plays. If the ball finds Jokic in the middle with a numbers advantage, it’s a good look. If the blitz isn’t effective where Murray can beat it and still turn the corner, it’s a good look somewhere. There’s only one correct option and it’s tough to achieve it. This puts too much pressure on the defense and I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Finally, they did experiment with some switches:

That’s also not coverage that I feel like they could go to a lot. This should only be reserved for spurts when necessary. And that’s because there’s going to be a mismatch somewhere and a high chance that a good look will come out of it if the defense isn’t perfect.

There’s so little margin of error in these two coverages.

Watch the clip at the 35-second mark. That’s the level of defense they need to play at all the time if they switch. Adebayo and Martin switch immediately but notice how Adebayo is doing a perfect job at denying the pass. He’s not letting Murray throw the ball to Jokic. Then he defends the drive perfectly and you have Kyle Lowry digging in. Now repeat all the time.

It will be interesting to see what the Heat will go to. Ideally, Butler will play better because he was the big reason why they had such success in game two. If he’s still struggling, then I think it’s time for Haywood Highsmith.

No Easy 3s

Do you know how you can stop teams from winning by shooting variance? Don’t give them enough good looks from 3 that it could hurt you. The best defense against 3s is prevention. Run teams off the line. Make sure the rotations are better. Contest better. Don’t have miscommunication that gives good, uncontested 3s. Don’t let shooters get in a rhythm. There are so many things defenses can do to not lose by just shooting variance.

Now, if the opponent still makes tough 3s regardless, then that’s when you tip your hat and say you got beat by shooting variance. If the Heat somehow made their 3s in this game, then at that point it’s honestly what else can you do?

In game two, the Heat go way too many open looks that allowed every shooter to take their time, get in a rhythm, and constantly have all the space. That disappeared in this game.

The Nuggets’ defense stepped up and they took away one main thing. The 3s coming out of pops and when ghosting a screen. There wasn’t any miscommunication on those pops for open 3s.

The Heat have been running a lot of these double screens and usually, the first screener will slip and pop for 3. That was enough to cause confusion and a defensive breakdown. The Nuggets adjusted well by switching that first screen in a way that it didn’t allow the shooter to pop for an open 3. That switch took everything away. Now, the Heat had to go to something else.

But even on the looks that they did get, the Nuggets did a good job at contesting better:

The Heat will have to somehow find ways to create better looks because this was as good of a defense against 3s as it can get.

Denver’s Adjustment Vs Butler

This is worrying. If this adjustment continues, then it may be trouble for the Heat… Unless Butler steps up. Butler hasn’t looked the same since the injury. Outside of game one against the Boston Celtics, after he had multiple days of rest, it hasn’t been that great.

There’s no lift. There’s no burst. He can’t finish inside. But more importantly, he doesn’t even want to take a shot. He will try to attack a mismatch but won’t actively look for a shot. He may have Jokic on the switch, but he will try and find a pass instead,

That didn’t matter at first, as the Nuggets still treated him as a scorer. They still sent enough help that Butler could use that to punish them. And Butler has still been able to punish guys, just not at a high volume or efficiency.

There have been times when he still attacked Murray in the post. There have been times he was hunting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope that got him easy looks inside. There were times when Reggie Jackson was on the floor and he got them to show. But even when he was aggressive enough to shoot, a lot of them were misses.

So, later in the game, the Nuggets adjusted by not sending such aggressive help. Instead, they did what the Celtics had done. They sent smart help. They didn’t overhelp but helped enough to bother him but not give up looks elsewhere:

Butler isn’t looking to score, so when he can’t create space for a shot and is looking to pass, but now without the additional help, there aren’t many passing windows open.

It’s going to be difficult to generate any offense if the best guy at providing rim pressure and what was their best offense, is nowhere to be seen. The Heat won’t win many games, outside of hot shooting, if Butler can’t and won’t take shots.

I’m so tired of saying this but the Heat need their best player to play better. There’s no strategy here. There’s no complicated Xs & Os. It’s simply, guys being better. Everything starts with Butler and everything will be better if he’s better.