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NBA Finals Game 1: Analyzing Coaching Adjustments

Michael Malone, Denver Nuggets

In the game of basketball, there are multiple adjustments happening in the course of every game. The average follower won’t pick up on them because of their subtleties in the broader picture of the outcome. This is why a common discourse throughout fanbases is that their coach isn’t making adjustments in the game. We see adjustments as lineup changes or defensive personnel adjustments. 

These NBA playoffs have seen adjustments from every series throughout each round. Some good and some bad, but we as fans tend to focus on if we lost. And this NBA Finals will be no different, with two of the best coaches in the league going at it. The goal is that this will highlight the subtle adjustments of each team from each quarter. If there are no adjustments (which sometimes there are), those will be noted as well.

Now let’s get into the good stuff.  

NBA Finals Game 1: Analyzing Coaching Adjustments

1st Quarter Initial Schemes in Game 1

To start Game 1, the Heat began small, with their starting lineup of Caleb Martin and Max Strus occupying the wings. Going with the hot hand and extra spacing of Martin/Strus did not pan out in the first quarter, though. The Heat matching up started with Jimmy Butler on Aaron Gordon, who has a size advantage on every Heat outside of Bam Adebayo, who is guarding Nikola Jokic. The Heat also chose to send a double every time Jokic touched the ball in the post. The Nuggets specifically targeted screens for Gordon in the beginning, to get Butler switched off.

The first instance of this was at the 9:35 mark, where Gordon set a brush screen on Jamal Murray to get a switch with Gabe Vincent on him. Murray swings to Jokic for a high-low action that led to an Aaron Gordon dunk.  This happened throughout the 1st quarter, with Gordon sealing on anyone smaller than him, especially in transition. In the half-court setting,  Gordon scored multiple field goals in the first 6 minutes. The Heat overhelped on any action with him because of this, which led to two easy dunks for Jamal Murray and Jokic, passing everyone open.

On the defensive end for the Nuggets, Jokic was in a heavy drop coverage on Adebayo screens with Butler the ball handler. Most possessions ended with Bam being hit on the short roll and hitting short, mid-range shots throughout the game. It is worth noting that the Heat had multiple open shots that they have made throughout the playoffs that did not drop. Strus specifically had three wide-open three-pointers that he missed. 

2nd Quarter Adjustments in Game 1

With Jokic on the bench, the Nuggets opt for a switch-everything scheme with multiple defenders on the court. Whenever they get scrambled, they do a great job of finding a man, and everyone following in suit. So this scheme works well for them.

After a pair of Haywood Highsmith free throws (the only of the game for the Heat somehow), the Heat went to a 2-3 zone with Jokic on the bench. They were mainly in the zone when they could get set, going back to man-to-man in transition situations. The Nuggets have been one of the best in the league, attacking the zone all season. They showed why in this stint scoring nine points in five zone possessions before a timeout.

Out of the timeout, Jokic came back onto the court, and the Heat went back to a man-to-man defense. Defensively the Nuggets went back to heavy drop coverage when Jokic’s man was the screener. Jokic did come up on a few screens with Duncan Robinson, and Robinson hit Bam on the short roll. The Nuggets were still operating by switching every ball action that was not Jokic. 

On the offensive end, the Heat generated great looks but weren’t able to capitalize. Specifically, Max Strus had seven open shots, but he missed all of them. Jamal Murray for the Nuggets was hitting shots, though, as he and Aaron Gordon led the way, with Jokic having ten assists in the first half. 

Score at the end of the first half: 59-42 Denver.

3rd Quarter Adjustments in Game 1

To open the 2nd half, the Heat were more deliberate in their attempts to get downhill. It led to two quick buckets by Bam scoring on rolls to the basket. Another roll by Bam on the next possession led to a kick out for a Vincent three-pointer. The Heat proceeded to run it again with an empty side, and it led to a Bam scoring opportunity which he should have finished. Instead, he missed it, and it led to a Jamal Murray three-point play. That five-point swing led to a 13-6 run by the Nuggets, leading to a Heat timeout.

Coming out of the timeout, the Nuggets stuck to their same defensive coverages. With the Heat having 55 points midway through the third, you could understand why. It is worth noting the only reason the Heat had that many points was due to their inability to hit shots, not Denver’s defense. They had multiple wide-open looks, and their usual great shooters (Robinson, Strus, Martin) were just not hitting them. Some of the shots were not close, either. 

At the end of the third quarter, the Nuggets were up 21 points, with the Heat somehow only scoring 63 points. 

4th Quarter Adjustments in Game 1

To start the 4th, the Heat had Highsmith pick up Murray full court. It immediately paid dividends with a steal and score in the backcourt in the opening seconds. Along with picking up full court, the Heat went to a zone again in set situations. Highsmith’s defense caused some tough shots, which led to an 8-0 run and a quick Nuggets timeout.

The zone worked with Jokic on the court because it did not let Denver get into their two-man game. It also threw them off as it appeared they were not prepared for it at that time. Yet still, Denver figured it out and found a way to create great scoring opportunities that led to a Miami timeout. 

Jokic took a rest on the bench that was opposite to his usual rest, this being at the six-minute mark of the fourth after the timeout. The Heat stuck to a zone defense, and it worked with no Jokic as the process was not as smooth to the shots being generated.  After a little over one minute of game time, Jokic came back into the game with Denver up 14.

After another timeout by Denver, The Heat stayed in a zone defense again. This stint with it did not work too well, as Denver scored or got great looks multiple times in a row. Despite the Heat cut the lead to 9 at one point, Denver’s process was perfect, and they got great shots every time down. Some were missed, but the looks were still there. 

Overall Conclusions

Erik Spoelstra’s game plan (whether intentional or not) would have worked if the Heat’s shooters hit some of their shots. The Heat did not let Jokic see a zone defense until the 4th quarter, despite running it for a few stints. And it worked because Denver’s go-to game plan is their two-man game. I don’t expect this strategy to work in the future because Denver got open shots, and more of those are bound to drop. Michael Malone stuck to his game plan throughout, outside of a random non-Jokic stint in the 4th. This is usually the case with Malone, as he doesn’t make changes, especially if his team is winning. Something to watch going forward is if Spoelstra employs a zone still. While it was effective, the quality of shots Denver was producing seemed sustainable.

Things to Look For in Game 2

Expect Denver and Miami to both hit more open shots going forward in the NBA Finals, as there were way too many open shots missed. For Denver, expect minor changes in coverage for certain players. Gabe Vincent and Kyle Lowry specifically should be more at the level than in drop. Game 2 should also see Miami possibly not send a double team against Jokic. We have seen him beat them with his passing. Now, can he do it, scoring 50? 


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