Here are five things we enjoyed from Game 1 of the NBA Finals:
1. Aggressive Adebayo
When a team scores just 93 points in an NBA game in 2023, searching for positives is akin to looking for blue sky on a gray, rainy day. But Bam Adebayo’s 26 point, 13 rebound, 5 assist performance should be viewed as one of those bright spots for Miami. Bam was aggressive from the start (16 pts in the first half) serving as Miami’s most consistent source of scoring all night long, while only turning the ball over once.
An aggressive Bam usually spells success for Miami: the Heat were 23-14 when he scored 20+ during the regular season, and are 6-1 (Game 1 being their only loss) when he’s done so in these playoffs.
Keeping their big man aggressive should be emphasized in Game 2–and beyond– for Miami. Assuming that Jimmy Butler and Caleb Martin supply more of their usual offensive punch on Sunday night, the second game of this series might hinge on another big Bam game.
2. A ‘surprising’ defensive stalwart
Denver has a well of established, respected defensive players on their roster. Aaron Gordon is versatile and has no problem doing the dirty work, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has a thorough understanding of how to incorporate his defensive strengths on winning basketball teams, and Bruce Brown shines as the “do-it-all reserve defender.”
But the Nuggets unheralded defensive hero in these playoffs–Game 1 included– is Michael Porter Jr, a player who was oft-maligned for his defensive struggles when he first entered the league, but has utterly transformed his skillset at that end of the floor. MPJ’s blossoming defensive effort has been requisite during Denver’s playoff run. And Game 1 may have been his best performance yet; his awareness and positioning were superb all night, he was cutting off driving lanes, contesting shots in the paint and at the rim, and also secured 14 boards for his third straight double-figure rebound game.
“We’re past the point of praising Michael when he has a good defensive game,” said Denver coach Michael Malone, who expects this level of production. “He needs to.”
Sometimes NBA championships are won because players extend themselves and accomplish things they weren’t expected to do. Michael Porter Jr becoming a defensive stalwart might end up being just that for Denver.
3. Setting the tone
If you had to describe the tone Aaron Gordon (12 pts in 1st quarter) and Jamal Murray (18 puts, 4 rebs, 4 ast in first half) set in the opening stages of Game 1, what word would you pick to do so? Assertive? Confrontational? Bullish? All of the above?
An energetic start from their point guard and power forward was just what Denver needed to propel the Nuggets to a lead that ended up being insurmountable for Miami. Even without big scoring from Nikola Jokic in the first half, when the rest of the team is scoring at will like this early on in the game, Joker can prioritize getting others involved and take his shots when they come to him.
If Miami can disrupt Gordon and Murray’s rhythm early in Game 2, it could help slow down the creative genius of Nikola Jokic; if the guys he’s creating for aren’t able to score this easily, then his elite creation becomes less dangerous to Miami. That is, of course, easier said than done.
4. The Highsmith Revolution
Thirty-five. That’s how many times the entire undergraduate student body at Wheeling University, Haywood Highsmith’s alma mater) could fit into Ball Arena before the stadium reaches capacity. But the lights still weren’t too bright for Highsmith in Game 1, when he scored 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting.
Highsmith won’t be expected to score 18 points every game throughout the Finals, but he will be tasked with bringing the energy he supplied in Game 1.
“[Energy is] what we need from everybody, regardless of when you come into the game and how many minutes you’re getting,” said Heat coach Eric Spoelstra.
5. Full control
Whatever metaphor you prefer–an artist with complete control over his brushstrokes, the king piece on a chess board, a director in charge of creating a Hollywood blockbuster– Nikola Jokic is that on the offensive end of the court. His ability to puppeteer the pace, plays and feel of a game is simply unprecedented. His dominance in the first half of Game 1 coming in spite of his three shot attempts is all the evidence necessary.
So now, the question that 28 NBA teams haven’t been able to answer falls on Miami’s shoulders; how do you fix that? How do you stop someone who is seemingly five moves ahead of everyone else on the court? May we suggest trying magic? Does the NBA rule book say anything about casting spells? If that’s not legal, more zone defense might be worth a shot, too.
Miami went zone-heavy in the fourth quarter on Thursday, and while it allowed Nikola Jokic to operate more freely as a scorer, it slowed down Denver’s offense as a whole (20 fourth-quarter points.)
At the very least, it helps take Jokic and Jamal Murray out of their pick-and-roll action, which is where so much of Jokic and Denver’s offensive brilliance comes from (Jamal Murray is shooting 55.6% out of the pick and roll these playoffs.) To no one’s surprise, Miami’s defensive schemes and formations will be an important storyline to follow.