A yellow shirt covered every purchased seat in Ball Arena before tip-off in anticipation of the Nuggets’ first NBA Finals game. Minutes before the action, the boos from the crowd muzzled the voice of Denver’s public address announcer Kyle Speller introducing the Heat players.
To start, the visiting team was working hard for buckets, and the hosts were not. The Heat went to man-to-man defense early, but Aaron Gordon was an unsolved mismatch for the first quarter. He barreled into the lane through various defenders for six of eight close-range finishes.
Jamal Murray dropped eight points in the opening period for the Nuggets, too, off assisted drives, backdoor cuts and shooting over drop coverage. Nikola Jokić was running sleight-of-hand action at the elbows and threading dimes from the top of the key.
The Heatles were lucky Bam Adebayo was carrying them offensively in the first half. His first step was too quick for Jokić, even when his man was low, taking away the drive. Adebayo hit turnaround hooks and jumpers in front of his Serbian matchup.
En route to halftime, the Nuggets cracked down on the Heat’s attack, only allowing 37.5% of attempts to fall. In drop coverage, the man defending the ball got quickly over the screens, not letting the low man get exposed, and the squad stayed close to the ball after switches. In this stretch, Max Strus and Caleb Martin converted zero out of dozen attempts, and the Heat took zero free throws.
The Nuggets led by 17 points at intermission, while the Joker was three for three from the field with 10 dimes. He was like a surgeon cutting open a body on the operating table.
As both squads headed for their locker rooms, the hometown supporters in Ball Arena gave the hosts a standing ovation.
In the third quarter, Miami scored seven straight points, but offensive production came to a screeching halt after Adebayo got to work in PnR. The Nuggets adjusted, staying in front of the ball as successfully as it did in the first half, and permitted just 32.1% of makes on Miami’s field goals.
Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr.’s size and length were obstructing driving lanes and passing angles for Heat players. On top of that, Porter shut down Caleb Martin’s jumpers and spiked away a layup from behind.
Entering the final frame, the Heatles were down 21 but cut the deficit to 10 with four minutes left off a fastbreak feed from Kyle Lowry to Haywood Highsmith. The Nuggets instantly countered with a double-drag screen that got Jokić open in the middle for a floater.
The Locksmith logged five out of six baskets in the fourth quarter to keep the Heat on life support, but the Nuggets kept getting to the paint or fouled.
The Nuggets won Game 1 104-93 behind a near-immaculate game plan. At the postgame presser, coach Michael Malone praised his unit’s defense and said his favorite stat was the Heat’s two free throws taken.
“We know Jimmy Butler is one of the best in the business at getting to the foul line,” Malone said. “So two free throw attempts. I thought the guys did a great job of defending without fouling…”
The Heat’s two free throw attempts are the lowest output for any NBA playoff game. The previous low was three tries in one night by the New Jersey Nets in a 17-point win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on May 7, 1993, per Stathead.
In the Heat’s press room, coach Erik Spoelstra said his team’s resolve was much stronger in the second half.
“You get to this level and it has to be complete games of that kind of disposition… it’s going to require more. We’ll get to work and see what we can do better, what we can do harder, what we can do with more effort, what we can do with more focus, etcetera,” Spoelstra said.
This is the first series in the Playoffs Miami starts down a match. Malone also mentioned how he and his troops didn’t want Miami’s streak of winning openers to continue. But even with the Nuggets taking Game 1 and holding a 24-point lead at one point in the evening, no one should overreact.
Astonishingly, the Heat was still within striking distance in crunch time. This is with Denver holding Butler to an uneventful night and locking up the role players. Nights where JB leaves Adebayo hanging, are uncommon. And now the Heat have two days to watch tape on its mistakes and refocus.
The Heat will not hold practice or media availability Friday.