Nikola Jokic (#15) of the Denver Nuggets shoots in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado, June 1, 2023. /CFP
The Denver Nuggets beat the Miami Heat 104-93 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado, on Thursday, leading 1-0 in the series.
Nikola Jokic dropped 27 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists, which was his ninth triple-double in this year's playoffs. Having faced the Heat's defensive policy of denying the ball and trapping in the first half, he focused on working in the high post. Having drawn the opponents' best rim protector Bam Adebayo out of the paint, Jokic kept feeding Aaron Gordon for easy buckets, enabling him to go 6-for-8 to get 12 points in the first quarter.
The Heat changed their defensive priority to solidifying the paint from the second quarter, which, however, enabled Jokic to connect with his perimeter teammates, especially Jamal Murray, to rain jumpers from the outside. The Nuggets made four triples in this period. Murray drained four jumpers to contribute 10 points by himself.
Aaron Gordon (#50) of the Denver Nuggets dunks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado, June 1, 2023. /CFP
The Nuggets already led by 59-42 after the first half. Jokic had 10 points and 10 assists in the two periods, becoming the second player to do so in an NBA Finals game in league history. The first one was LeBron James.
Having trailed by over 21 points (84-63) after the third quarter, the Heat launched their final rally by combining denying the ball and zone defense at the beginning of the fourth period. Moreover, Kyle Lowry made two straight triples off the dribble by attacking Jokic's drop coverage. The team launched a quick 11-0 run in two and a half minutes.
In response, Jokic, who only shot five field goals (FGs) in the first three quarters, went 4-for-7 from the floor to score 12 points in the fourth period alone. His solution to the Heat's zone defense was to power his way through the free throw line and then making Adebayo guess whether he would shoot or pass to the open teammate for a backdoor cut.
Jamal Murray (#27) of the Denver Nuggets shoots in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado, June 1, 2023. /CFP
As the player who was guarding Jokic during most of their time in Thursday's game, Adebayo didn't have many chances to get physical with Jokic to consume him or make him take tough shots, which proved effective in containing the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player in previous seasons. Jokic kept moving all over the court and did a lot of work - setting screens and playing handoff - without holding the ball for longer than two seconds. Furthermore, when Jokic received the ball and seriously wanted to work in the low post, Adebayo couldn't stop him at all.
Fairly speaking, Adebayo on Thursday made one of his best offensive performances in the playoffs as he shot 13-for-25 from the field to get 26 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. Nonetheless, most of the shots he made off the dribble were outside the paint. Unlike Jokic, Adebayo couldn't change the Nuggets' defense with his individual attack.
Bam Adebayo (#13) of the Miami Heat shoots in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado, June 1, 2023. /CFP
The Heat's only player who could and should do change the opponents' defense with individual offense, Jimmy Butler, was in a poor form in Thursday's game. Having missed seven of his nine jumpers, he only got 13 points. The Nuggets were very careful in guarding him. They rotated quickly to avoid exposing defensive vulnerability to him while trying not to fall for his tricks. Butler didn't earn even one free throw in the game. In fact, only Haywood Highsmith on the Heat's roster went to the free throw line twice.
Despite their big disadvantage in size, the Heat didn't use Kevin Love in Thursday's game. Spoelstra gave Cody Zeller about seven minutes, but had to go back to the small lineup because Zeller had nothing to contribute on the offensive end. Highsmith played nearly 24 minutes and scored 18 points after making two triples and five shots under the hoop. His efficient finishing work was why the team caused a stir in the final quarter.
Game 2 of the series will take place at Ball Arena on Sunday.