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Nikola Jokic Has the Heat in the Palm of His Hand

Within the first few minutes of Game 1 of the Finals, it became clear that Miami was in trouble—and that the two-time MVP was ready to play every tilt of the Heat’s formidable defense against them

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For three straight playoff rounds, the Miami Heat baffled opponents with the ambiguity of their defense—mixing up coverages, shrinking the floor, and shifting between matchups to the point that some of the best players in the world had trouble understanding what exactly was in front of them. And just when those opposing players began to suss out the answer, Miami’s defense would change shape again, starting the entire process anew. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and a cast of tenacious role players ran so much interference that other would-be contenders could barely see the forest for the trees.

At least until Nikola Jokic, towering head and shoulders above that forest, took a quick glance down and casually identified the simplest way through. It’s not supposed to be that easy. Yet there Jokic was, in the opening game of his first NBA Finals, deconstructing every scheme and concept the Heat could throw at him. The Denver Nuggets won Game 1, 104-93, but that margin misrepresents the night’s proceedings. This wasn’t a back-and-forth affair that could have gone either way. It was a game played in the palm of Jokic’s hand. Within the first few minutes, it became clear that Miami was in trouble—and that the two-time MVP was ready to play every tilt of the Heat’s defense against them.

“I learned a long time ago [that] the defense tells you what to do,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “And Nikola never forces it. If they’re going to give him that kind of attention—he had 10 assists at halftime, I believe—well, he’s going to just pick you apart.”

That formidable Heat defense sprung leak …

after leak …

... after leak, each more painful than the last:

This is how you post the most assists in a Finals debut in NBA history. It’s how you lay the groundwork for yet another playoff triple-double (27 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds), even while shooting just three times in the entire first half. It’s also how you break a team. There were moments in each of the Nuggets’ previous series when the exasperation of attempting to defend Jokic would filter through—in a shaking head, a palms-up shrug, or even a pained look upward, with some muttering plea for divine intervention. Generally, those reactions come after Jokic himself hits an impossible shot, as he tends to do. But in Game 1, the looks the playmaking center was able to generate for his teammates were so free and easy they threatened to break the Heat. Miami isn’t used to giving up uncontested layups and dunks, and yet it did, repeatedly, with the nearest defender so far out of the play they couldn’t even take a hard foul to stop it.

Some frustration will come of that. Pride will kick in, too; the Heat will have plenty more to say in this series, and have shown a relentlessness in these playoffs that cannot be discounted. Yet Jokic exercised a terrifying kind of restraint in Game 1—both by showing that he was so big and so strong that he could effectively walk Adebayo (who is one of the best defenders in the world) all the way to the rim for a score whenever he wanted to, and by showing that he could create offense for his teammates so easily that brute force wasn’t really necessary.

“I think that’s the beauty of what this team is,” said Jamal Murray, who played off of Jokic to perfection in Game 1 and registered 10 assists himself. “We have so many different weapons and so many different looks, you’ve got to guard everybody. Jokic dominated until the fourth quarter, and it didn’t even feel like it.”

That fourth quarter was a kitchen-sink stretch for the Heat defense—an attempt to see whether they could accomplish with scrambling disorientation what they couldn’t with any particular scheme. By the end, Jokic had seen shading defenders and outright double-teams, worked against bruising centers and rangy wings, and faced man-to-man coverage and zone looks alike. “They did a great job of just junking up the game,” Murray said.

Yet even as Miami cut what was a 24-point deficit down to nine, there was never any doubt about who was in control. With about two and a half minutes remaining, Jokic caught the ball in the middle of the Heat’s zone defense and kicked it out to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a clean jumper. Then, on the next possession, he brought the ball up the floor himself and rocketed a pass to Aaron Gordon right under the basket, where he was fouled for free throws. Jokic again ran the ball up on the next trip down the floor, got an angle on Adebayo just past half court, and drew another foul and another trip to the free throw line. Then the Nuggets slowed things down to set Jokic up on the left block, where he backed Bam down as far as he needed to before calmly nailing a turnaround jumper to put the game away.

The ease—of that, of all of it—was striking. Throughout Game 1, Jokic and Murray ran a seemingly endless number of variations on their usual two-man game, a ballet of screens and rescreens that manifested in open shots all over the floor. There were counterbalances in every direction. Whenever Miami’s matchups got mixed up for the sake of containing Jokic, Gordon wrestled his way inside and parked himself in scoring position. When Miami tried to lean more bodies into the paint to crowd Jokic and Murray as they went about their dance, Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, and Michael Porter Jr. were only a pass away, relocating as needed and ready to fire.

“It’s really hard to guard when you don’t know who’s going to attack and how to defend when everybody is moving, everybody is doing something,” Jokic said. “I think it’s a really nice brand of basketball that we have, and everybody buys in.”

This wasn’t even an accurate shooting night for the Nuggets (who converted less than 30 percent of their 3s), but that didn’t matter; the swings of a make-or-miss league don’t quite measure up to a player who can score virtually whenever he wants in this matchup, with every complement of the offense at his disposal. There are no sustainable answers for Miami. The Heat can keep changing their matchups. They can try to toggle their coverage in ways that will make Jokic think twice or at least cut off the spoon-fed layup line. None of it can last. No matter what you put in front of Jokic, he’ll find a way through. You can’t shrink the floor on a player who can see right over you, and you can’t bait him into hunting his own shot any more or less than he thinks he should. “Nikola never tries to impose his will or force things that aren’t there,” Malone said. “He’s going to read the game. He’s going to make the right play. Most importantly, he’s going to make every one of his teammates better.”

It comes down to this: The Heat defense, with all its success in these playoffs, is built on a mind game. And when you play that kind of game with Jokic—who’s proving to be one of the most advanced processors the sport has ever seen—you lose.