In the aftermath of the Miami Heat's Game 2 victory over the Denver Nuggets to even the NBA Finals at one game apiece, Erik Spoelstra almost laughingly dismissed a question about whether his defense had made a conscious decision to turn Nikola Jokic, who finished with 41 points, into a scorer rather than a passer.
"That's ridiculous," Spoelstra scoffed. "That's the untrained eye that says something like that. This guy's an incredible player. Twice in two seasons he's been the best player on this planet. You can't just say, 'Oh, make him a scorer.' That's not how [the Nuggets] play. They have so many different actions that get you compromised. We have to focus on what we do. We try to do things the hard way. And [Jokic] requires you to do many things the hard way. He has our full respect."
First of all, it was not a ridiculous question. That said, it's common knowledge that Spoelstra isn't going to talk schematics particularly during a playoff series. When he switched Gabe Vincent onto Jalen Brunson and Jimmy Butler onto R.J. Barrett in the Heat-Knicks series, which was a big and successful adjustment, he immediately shifted gears in the postgame press conference to the Heat's "disposition."
Spoelstra is no fool. He saw the fire it lit under Jokic and Nuggets when everyone proclaimed after Game 1 of the conference finals that the Lakers had found some sort of Jokic elixir by switching Rui Hachimura onto him, thus freeing up Anthony Davis as a roaming rim protector.
We all knew that was a joke even as the narrative was developing. Hachimura could not guard Jokic. I don't care what it theoretically freed up Davis to do. Still, it was bulletin-board material. The Lakers got swept. So yeah, Spoelstra is going to immediately cut off any talk that the Heat have in any way figured out some sort of Jokic defensive potion.
Because in truth, they haven't. The Nuggets, even with Jokic scoring more than assistsing, registered an appreciably higher offensive rating in their Game 2 loss (124.1) than they did in their Game 1 win (111.8), per Cleaning the Glass. They shot 52% from the field and 39% from 3, both better marks than Game 1.
These are not absolute markers, mind you. I hate the phrase "make or miss league," but there's truth in it. Those three didn't exactly shoot the lights out in Game 1, either, and the Heat shot a blistering 48% from 3 in Game 2, which, for all we're about to discuss, was the main reason that they won. All of this could mean nothing or everything in Game 3 on Wednesday.
That said, you can cut the semantics however you like, or however Spoelstra likes, but the Heat absolutely picked their Jokic poison on Sunday. They almost never committed to a full double team, opting to instead stay attached to shooters and ever-aware of the cutting Aaron Gordon so as to cut off, to whatever degree possible, Jokic's passing pipelines.
We saw it on Denver's first possession of the game. Jokic breaks free to the basket off a screen and roll, and Kevin Love is not going to come over to Jokic at the expense of leaving Gordon for an easy lob dunk. It works out. Jokic misses.
Miami wasn't perfect in this regard. That's impossible. You can't completely cut off Jokic's passing any more than you can completely cut off a great scorer. The few times that Miami did lose track of Gordon when bringing a second defender to Jokic, the Heat got burned.
But for the most part, Miami was steadfast in devoting a single defender to Jokic and letting that play out, for better or worse. Here it's Bam Adebayo on the island. Watch as Jokic goes to the middle of the paint, and how nobody comes down off their shooter to help, and how Love again stays attached to Gordon. It allows Jokic a path to the rim. He scores. But Miami was committed to making him do this over and over.
Before the series, Spoelstra noted that it was going to require all five Heat defenders to defend Jokic. The play below is the perfect example of all five guys doing their job. Jokic drives middle, but watch as Max Strus takes a step away from Jokic and toward his man, Porter Jr., who's spacing behind the 3-point line. Jimmy Butler doesn't help down from the corner shooter. Love switches onto Jokic while Adebayo drops down to cut off the rolling Gordon. With all passing options cut off, it leaves Jokic to go one on one with Love. He scores again, but so be it. You can't cover everything. Everyone did their job and two is better than three.
Here's Adebayo, Cody Zeller, and even 6-foot-2 Gabe Vincent getting their crack at defending Jokic one on one as everyone else stays connected to their man. He scores every time, but these are all very tough shots that, even though Jokic makes them regularly because he's the best player in the world, are palatable for a defense playing the long game.
What we have here is some pretty basic basketball poison picking. Would you rather Jokic score 27, as he did in Game 1, but also cut up your double teams and undisciplined help for 14 assists, which gets the rest of the team going, or lean more toward single coverage and at least try to make him one dimensional? The Heat chose the latter option in Game 2, held Jokic to four assists, and won the game.
That result is in keeping with a season-log trend of Denver being less successful when Jokic is facilitating less and scoring more; during the regular season, the Nuggets were 3-7 when Jokic ended up with six or fewer assists. Stretching that out to 10 assists, the Nuggets were 34-4 when he hit that mark during the regular season, and 14-17 when he didn't.
Assists, in many ways, are a flawed reflection of passing. First of all, they require someone else to make a shot (when the Nuggets don't make shots, of course they're going to lose more often). Second, it's often the pass before the assist that makes the play, the proverbial hockey assist, and secondary assists don't make the traditional box score.
Still, Jokic piles up assists because he's an all-galaxy passer, and because the Nuggets have shooters all over the court and a fantastically athletic, instinctive cutter in Gordon. If, in theory, you stay attached to all those other weapons, how many points can Jokic really score on his own? On Sunday, the answer was 41, and for whatever it's worth, the Nuggets are now 0-3 in these playoffs when Jokic tops the 40-point mark.
That doesn't mean Jokic can't beat you as a high-volume scorer. It simply means this is a game of odds. You can hit on a 16 at the black jack table and luck into a five, but over time, those odds are going to kill you. Same with Jokic. All you can do is make the play the percentages support and hope the cards fall friendly.
The Heat know -- hell everyone knows -- that Jokic cannot be stopped, which is to say your chances of defeating him lie in the degrees of his domination. Was he less dominant in Game 2 than he was in Game 1? Perhaps not. But he was certainly dominant in a different way, and for at least one night, that defensive shift was part of Miami's winning equation. Maybe not as big a part as their own shooting, but a part. And at this point, any victory, however big or small, is one that has to be relished for an eighth-seeded Miami team that is now in a five-game series with home-court advantage for an NBA championship. It still feels wild to write that. But here we are. See you on Wednesday for Game 3.