NBA Finals 2023: 2 key areas that will define Game 5 between the Heat and Nuggets

Staring down the barrel of a 3-1 series deficit, can the Miami Heat upend the Denver Nuggets in tonight’s Game 5 and extend their season?

After dropping two straight games on their home floor, the Miami Heat find themselves in a 3-1 hole against Denver Nuggets. We are all aware of the history of teams who have faced such a deficit in the NBA Finals (36 have tried, 35 have failed). However, if we know anything about this Miami Heat team, we know that this is a group that will take said history, crumple it up, and chuck it into the furnace that stokes their vaunted “Heat culture”.

Head coach, Erik Spoelstra, had this to say in yesterday’s media session:

“Everybody’s counting us out. We’re used to that. But ultimately it has to be decided between those four lines. The crowd is not going to decide it. That narratives are not going to decide it. Whatever the analytics are about 3-1, that ain’t gonna decide it. It’s going to be decided between those four lines. Whose game can get to whose game, and ultimately win at the end. That’s what our guys love.”

Jimmy Butler had a similar message ahead of Game 5:

“We didn’t come this far to stop playing now. No matter what the odds are, the analytics, when we get out there, we’ve just got to compete.”

Meanwhile, the Nuggets, who are on the brink of clinching their first title in franchise history, are not oblivious to the false sense of security that comes along with a 3-1 lead. Head coach, Mike Malone, said yesterday that his biggest concern going into Game 5 was “human nature”, with his message to the team being, “our approach has to be that we are down 3-1”.

The ever-tranquil, Nikola Jokic, said:

“It’s not going to be emotional; it’s going to be a job that needs to be done. We are going to be locked in and ready to go. It’s just a game that we need to win.”

So, will tonight be the night that we crown a new NBA champion? Or will the Miami Heat stay alive and force a Game 6 in South Beach? Here’s one key area to watch for each team ahead of tonight’s Game 5.

Can the Nuggets’ role players step up once again in the NBA Finals?

In Game 4, Denver took a rather non-traditional route to victory as it was the first time this postseason that both Nikola Jokic (hampered by a twisted ankle early in the game) and Jamal Murray shot below 45 percent from the field. While the pair by no means played badly — Jokic still finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists, and was magnificent on the defensive end and Murray racked up 12 assists, marking four consecutive games where he’s recorded 10+ assists — Denver received a massive lift in the scoring column from Aaron Gordon (playoff career-high, 27 points on 11-of-15 shooting) and Bruce Brown (21 points on 8-of-11 shooting) which was vital to their victory.

After getting torched by the Murray/Jokic two-man game in Game 3, Miami made a big effort to muddy up this action as much as possible on Friday night, basically sending three defenders at them whenever they were involved in the action. Check out Gabe Vincent’s positioning on one of the first possessions of the game, lurking around the nail even after Butler goes to double team in the post, then scrambling out to guard Murray as soon as Jokic commits to kicking it out (leaving Strus guarding both KCP and Michael Porter Jr.).

Then at the end of the half, Jokic sets a high screen for Murray, Bam switches onto him while Caleb Martin funnels him towards Bam’s defense, and Butler rotates towards Jokic at the top of the key.

While this strategy did limit how effective Murray and Jokic were scoring-wise (I noted their subpar field goal percentages above), it gave way to open looks and mismatch opportunities for Denver’s complimentary pieces — which they took full advantage of as shown in the clips below.

Here, Murray draws two defenders, and Strus rotates onto Jokic. Gordon flashes to the middle, and upon receiving the pass from Murray, immediately snaps a pass out to Bruce Brown for an open three.

Here, Murray attacks off of a Jokic screen, draws help from Duncan Robinson then kicks it out to Brown for another triple.

In this clip, Bam switches onto Murray, leaving Gabe Vincent guarding Jokic. Alarm bells sound for Miami’s defense as soon as Jokic catches the ball, and they collapse onto “Big Honey” who makes an amazing pass to Gordon lurking in the dunker’s spot for an easy two.

For Miami, because they haven’t been able to stop Murray and Jokic one on one, they’ve opted to send extra help toward them, forcing Denver’s complimentary players to beat them. In Game 4, Denver’s “other guys” stepped up to the challenge. I doubt we see Miami deviate from this strategy, despite how good Gordon and Brown were in Game 4.

While Jokic and Murray are at the heart of everything that Denver does on the offensive end, they will need another big night from their role players if they want to clinch their first championship in franchise history tonight.

Can Playoff Jimmy reappear for Game 5?

Jimmy Butler’s exploits this postseason have been the stuff of legend. He dropped 56 points on the Milwaukee Bucks to give his team a commanding 3-1 lead over the Eastern Conference NO. 1 seed, then followed that performance up with a 42-point encore in front of his home fans to eliminate them just two days later. He toasted the Boston Celtics to the tune of 28 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists in a decisive Game 7 victory on the road just two weeks ago.

If the Miami Heat are going to stave off elimination tonight, it starts with Jimmy Butler, who has been held in check for much of this series. Butler is aware that he needs to be better, saying yesterday:

“I have to do a better job of getting guys open, whether it be off a screen or off my attacks. We got to find ways to do it, and it’s not easy. It’s definitely not easy when you’re in the Finals.”

While Butler isn’t playing poorly, he simply has to do more for this Miami offense that has been so reliant on his shot creation in these playoffs. Butler had a 35 percent usage rate in Miami’s first-round series against the Bucks and a 26 percent usage rate against the Knicks. He had a 30 percent usage rate in the Eastern Conference Finals series against the Celtics. In the Finals, however, his usage rate is down to just 25 percent despite averaging the most minutes per game that he has in any series this postseason.

One play in particular that stood out to me from game four seemed to encapsulate his lack of aggression. On a fastbreak opportunity early in the third quarter, Butler pulled up for a mid-range jump shot instead of going at Nikola Jokic. Butler is one of the most adept foul-drawers in the league, and I was startled to see him settle for a jump shot here.

While play like these can perhaps be chalked up to the after-effects of the ankle injury he suffered in the second round against the Knicks, we’ve seen Butler step up since the injury and deliver when his team has needed it most. With their backs against the wall, tonight will undoubtedly be a game where the Heat need their alpha dog to step up and conjure up one of the signature performances that only he is capable of for this team.

We’ve seen the stress that Jokic or Murray on an island puts on Miami’s defense, Butler will need to strike a similar fear into the hearts of Denver’s defense tonight — take advantage of isolations and mismatches early on in the game, then use the extra attention he receives to create open looks for his teammates. Anything less will spell trouble for the Heat.

Confident as ever, Butler said in yesterday’s media session, that his belief in winning Game 4 stands at “an all-time high”.

Can Miami extend its season for one more game, or will the Denver Nuggets claim the 2023 NBA championship on their home floor? Game 5 tips off at 8:30 p.m. EST tonight.

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