If you want a sense of how things went for the Nuggets in their first appearance in the NBA Finals on Thursday, look no further than power forward Aaron Gordon’s showing in the first period.
There was the violent spin move to the cup two minutes in, when he briefly lost the ball before recovering it to go up for a layup over All-NBA wing Jimmy Butler. There was the following play, where he sealed the overmatched Gabe Vincent just inside the restricted area, catching a beautiful feed from Nikola Jokić before throwing down a forceful, two-hand jam. A minute and a half later, he had Max Strus pinned just as deep, prompting Jamal Murray to fire a bounce pass from half court all the way into the charge circle, allowing Gordon to go straight up for two more.
There was even more of the same to conclude the period: another bully ball-style layup over Caleb Martin, a strong take over Vincent—who, at 6'2" stands six inches shorter—and a nifty Eurostep on the left side of the basket from the three-point line to the rim on Strus.
It made for a dominant, you-can’t-stop-me 12-point opening quarter from Denver’s fourth option, a player who’s averaged only 13 points per contest this postseason. But the display suggested two important things: First, that the Nuggets—from Gordon on down—were willing to do their work early in establishing a tone on offense, and secondly, that the Denver offense would eventually become an impossible, fast-paced game of Whac-a-Mole for the Miami defense.
When the Heat wisely tilted their defense to stop Gordon from scoring at the rim (he finished with 16), it simply meant other Nuggets got exactly the looks they wanted. The club’s star trio of, Jokić, Murray and Michael Porter Jr. combined for 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting in that second period. (Jokić took only three shot attempts by the end of the half, but, as always, the quarterback was more than happy to facilitate, logging 10 assists by the break. When two Heat defenders stayed with him on a pick-and-roll, Murray eased into easy pull-up looks for himself. The men became the first pair of teammates since Magic Johnson and James Worthy to each have 25 points and 10 assists in a Finals game.)
Then in the second half, the Nuggets enlisted the scoring help of reserve Bruce Brown, a free-agent signing who fits just as masterly with this group as Gordon has since being traded to the Mile High City back in 2021. Brown serves as a playmaker. He cuts. He screens. He defends. He shoots well enough to demand the respect of the defense. He’s an ideal guy to play off Jokić and with this group, because he’s one more guy you can’t afford to sag off—either because he’ll knock down a jumper or find a seam behind you when you aren’t watching.
Jimmy Butler went cold in Game 1, finishing the night with 13 points.
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The victory kept the Nuggets a perfect 9–0 at home this postseason—and notably handed Miami its first series-opening loss of the playoffs—though some on the Heat side of things will undoubtedly point to a handful of things as reasons for hope going forward. Beyond the vast rest disadvantage and the altitude, Martin—a breakout star in these playoffs—Strus and Duncan Robinson shot a combined 2-for-23 (8.7%) in the game, while the Heat shot just 33.3% (13-for-39) from deep as a club. We’ve come to expect more from this Cinderella group, which rode its hot shooting to upset victory after upset victory in previous playoff rounds.
But on some level, that’s the problem here: Miami, with a lack of offensive playmaking after Butler, Bam Adebayo (who was excellent in Game 1, with 26 points) and backup guard Kyle Lowry, is very reliant on jump shooting. That point was amplified in Game 1, a contest in which the Heat drew a grand total of just two—yes, two—free throws on the night. They even broke an NBA record for the fewest trips to the foul line in an NBA Finals game in the process.
Sure, guard Tyler Herro’s potential return from the hand injury that’s kept him out since Miami’s playoff opener with Milwaukee would inject more life and scoring into the group. But even if that’s the case, does throwing in an out-of-rhythm, less-than-stellar defender into the mix against a cohesive juggernaut of an offense truly fix the Heat’s problems? And going back to whatever optimism Heat supporters might feel after the team’s icy shooting in Game 1 (and incredibly solid minutes from Haywood Highsmith), it’s worth noting that the Nuggets shot even worse—just 8-of-27 from outside—than Miami did, yet still won by double digits and never once looked in danger of losing. Not even as the Heat won the final period by 10 points.
Erik Spoelstra and the Heat tried a number of different things defensively, as they always do. They single-covered. They threw some doubles at the two-time MVP (which he consistently read perfectly). They utilized their zone, which they rely on more than any other NBA team has over the past 15 years. Even with Spoelstra cooking up more things to throw at the Nuggets, the defensive results were far from awful in Game 1, with Denver logging its second-lowest point total of the postseason and its second-worst three-point percentage of the playoffs.
The fact that the Nuggets’ offensive effort still managed to be more than enough should be cause for concern in Miami, though. Jokić, Murray and their teammates might simply be too good for any of it to truly make a difference. And that’s the stuff of a malleable champion.