How the Heat picked apart the Nuggets' defense in Game 2
Coming into the playoffs, there wasn't any doubt that the Denver Nuggets' offense was championship caliber. The one reason to question whether they were capable of winning the whole shebang was their defense, which showed great improvement over the course of the season but still clocked in at exactly league average. It's exceedingly rare for a team to win the title without a top-10 regular season defense, and Denver finished 15th.
The good news is that rather than getting exposed when the competition ramped up, the defense actually improved in the postseason. It's a huge reason the Nuggets are currently just three wins away from capturing their first championship in franchise history. Entering Game 2 of the Finals against the Miami Heat, they ranked fifth among all playoff teams with a 111 defensive rating, 2.5 points per 100 possessions better than their regular season mark and better than even the defense-first Heat's rating. That trend continued in Game 1. The bad news is that all of Denver's defensive deficiencies showed up on Sunday night, allowing Miami to score 129.1 points per 100 and steal home-court advantage by levelling the NBA Finals at a game apiece.
Because their own offense remains an absolute buzzsaw, the Nuggets still only lost by one possession and were a Jamal Murray 3-ball at the buzzer away from sending the game to overtime. The Heat also shot an unsustainable 17-for-35 (49%) from long range, hit only seven field goals at the rim, and got almost nothing in transition, so this certainly wasn't a harbinger of doom for Denver. But the Nuggets had a ton of uncharacteristic coverage breakdowns and miscommunications in the game, the kind they'd largely avoided in the playoffs up to that point, and they'll need to clean those things up when the series shifts to South Beach.
What's interesting is that Nikola Jokic is typically thought of as his team's most exploitable defensive link, but he was way down the list of culprits in Game 2. Jokic was far from perfect, but he mostly did his job defending ball screens and post-ups while Denver's perimeter defenders got their wires crossed, fouled jump-shooters, and botched countless coverages around him.
There were too many of those mishaps to recount in this space, but I'll try to spotlight some of the most egregious and damaging ones, and I'll start by focusing on the biggest offender. Michael Porter Jr. was the Nuggets' most improved defender this season, but he lapsed into all his worst habits in Game 2: ball-watching, poor positioning, weak-side oblivion, late or blown help rotations, the works.
The first alarm bell signaling that Denver's defense was in for a long night rang out a little more than two minutes into the game, when Porter and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who also had a brutal defensive game by his standards) miscommunicated on an empty-side double ball screen from Miami in which Max Strus ghosted the first screen and flared to the corner. Both defenders stayed with the ball-handler and Strus got a wide-open three.
It's hard to know for sure who to fault for a breakdown without knowing what the coverage was supposed to be, but based on Caldwell-Pope's miffed reaction and the way the Nuggets have been defending double-drag action all postseason - mainly by switching the first screen and then icing the second - it's fair to say that one was on Porter. The rest of the Nuggets weren't exactly covering themselves in glory, either. Murray and Aaron Gordon bungled a similar empty-side ghost screen from Strus just a few minutes later:
Amid a teamwide comedy of errors, though, the gaffes from MPJ stood out. The play below started out OK, as he sank to tag Cody Zeller when Jokic slid over to help on a Caleb Martin drive. But then Porter inexplicably jumped for a no-hope interception on Martin's kickout pass, turned over the wrong shoulder upon landing, and gifted Strus another wide-open three:
The Nuggets went on a massive run shortly after yanking Porter for Bruce Brown, turning an 11-point deficit into a 15-point lead midway through the second quarter. But Miami hung around and kept exploiting Porter's poor weak-side decision-making any time he was on the floor. The hits kept coming in the second half.
On one play, Porter pulled all the way across the paint to overload the strong side (something he's done to great effect throughout the playoffs) against a Jimmy Butler drive. It was a fine idea in principle, but Porter got hung up on the baseline and then started rotating back to the corner (which Caldwell-Pope already had covered) before recognizing far too late that he needed to X-out to an open Gabe Vincent on the wing. Later, Porter neglected his low-man duties when Kyle Lowry slipped a pocket pass to Bam Adebayo, who was rolling behind Jokic's high drop. Porter then compounded the damage of his late rotation by committing a terrible foul to give Adebayo an and-one:
For the game, Denver had a 138.3 defensive rating with Porter on the floor.
Again, though, the problems ran far deeper than just one guy. Caldwell-Pope, typically the Nuggets' most reliable defender, made a handful of uncharacteristic coverage mistakes and committed two three-shot fouls - including one on Strus with less than a second on the shot clock. And the wings that Denver brought in to replace Caldwell-Pope and Porter at the start of the fourth quarter - Bruce Brown and Christian Braun - had their own issues.
Miami ran the exact same play involving those two defenders two possessions in a row - a Vincent pindown for Duncan Robinson, with Adebayo as the trigger man at the top of the key - and got five points out of it. The first time, Brown and Braun both went with Robinson on the curl, and Vincent popped out for an open three. The second time, Brown stayed with Vincent while Braun tried to pursue Robinson over the screen, but Braun got hung up and Robinson got a layup:
For a relatively simple action involving two fairly like-sized defenders, the Nuggets ought to have been able to execute a switch. Instead, those back-to-back plays gave the Heat their first lead of the second half, and they led for the rest of the game.
The mistakes really piled up in that fourth quarter, during which Miami scored 36 points on 20 offensive possessions. Murray let Robinson blow by him for an and-one layup, and he later got burned on a fly-by closeout after over-helping on a non-threatening Butler isolation against Gordon, who had his own sloppy closeout on Butler in the corner and wound up fouling him from behind on a mid-ranger for an and-one. And Jokic, who largely avoided the kind of scheme-breaking mistakes his teammates committed throughout the game, made a costly one on a crucial crunch-time possession.
The Nuggets had trailed by as many as 11 points in the fourth, but they closed the deficit to three with under a minute to play thanks to a Jokic offensive rebound and cross-court sling pass to Murray for a triple on the previous trip. The Heat came back down the floor and ran an empty-side Butler-Adebayo pick-and-roll, and while Jokic initially started to drop back (which he's been doing successfully against Butler all series), he miscalculated and made a late lunge out at Butler, despite Gordon recovering back into the play and even though conceding a Butler pull-up three would've been a fine outcome for the defense. He made matters worse by trying to pick off Butler's pocket pass, which allowed Adebayo to roll into space and draw free throws that made it a two-possession game:
So, just about everyone on Denver's side deserves some blame and will have to be better in Game 3 and beyond. The Heat also deserve a ton of credit for running crisp, purposeful offense that targeted their opponents' weak spots in a variety of ways and helped trigger all the Nuggets' breakdowns. Further credit is due for knocking down so many of the open shots that those breakdowns produced.
All four of Strus' 3-pointers came in the first quarter, but the threat of that shot allowed him to draw two to the ball and opened up great shots for his teammates for the rest of the night. He finished with six assists as a result, twice as many as he's recorded in any other game this postseason. The same goes for Lowry and Vincent, whose pull-up shooting pulled Jokic out higher and opened up the short roll for Adebayo.
The Heat also did some interesting things defensively, like consistently engaging a third defender in Murray-Jokic actions and returning to their funky pressure zone for big swaths of the fourth quarter. Inserting Kevin Love into the starting lineup was a winning adjustment that helped on both sides of the floor, providing better spacing on one end while allowing Miami to put more size on Gordon and Murray at the other.
All of that stuff matters, but by far the biggest story of Game 2 was Denver's defense simply not showing up to play. If it's true that defense travels, then the Nuggets better hope the Game 1 version of theirs boards the plane to Miami.