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The Contrast Between “Stopping” Joker and Jimmy

The Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat are pouring everything into stopping each other’s best players. But the two teams have very different interpretations of what that looks like.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In Game 2 of the NBA Finals, there was a stark difference between how the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat chose to defend their opponent’s best player. For Miami, turning Nikola Jokic into a scorer limited Denver’s supporting cast and stunted its synergetic offensive identity.

The Nuggets have taken the opposite approach. Instead of encouraging Jimmy Butler to shoot, Denver has done everything it can to curb his attempts, whether he’s isolating on the wing or running a pick-and-roll. They’ve loaded up on the strong side, over-helped at the nail, and miscommunicated in a panic trying to execute the right coverage. In other words, they were desperate to decrease his field goal attempts and make everyone else beat them. (The Heat are 5-4 in the playoffs when Butler attempts fewer than 20 shots, and 8-2 when he tops that number.)

Butler isn’t Jokic, but he reads the floor as well as anyone in the NBA at his position. The two stars are selfless and abide by the same philosophy. On Tuesday, Jokic said, “I think the open man wins the game,” and it was a sentence that sums up how he and Butler approach their responsibilities.

Being assertive for the sake of finishing with 30 points instead of 22? It’s never been Butler. Leveraging all the attention he draws driving to the basket and then whipping a pass to someone who’s making over 40 percent of his 3s? That’s more Butler’s speed.

“If my guys are open, I’m throwing it every single time,” Butler said. “I hope I throw it on the money, perfect, to where you can just step in and shoot it. Like I’ve always said, I’ve got so much faith in them. I can’t win without them. I’ve tried that before in other places where I just think I can do it. No, that’s not the answer. Here, we understand that I need those guys. I hope those guys need me a little bit, too. But it’s like, it’s perfect basketball. We love playing for and with one another. If you’re open, I’m passing it.”

After his playoff-low 13-point performance in Miami’s Game 1 loss, Butler was asked whether he needed to be more aggressive. “No. I’m going to continue [to] play the right way,” he said. “I’m going to pass the ball to my shooters the way I have been playing the entire playoffs, the entire year.”

In Game 2, Butler didn’t force anything. He scored 21 points, but also had nine assists and made 17 passes that led to a shot. The Heat finished with an 84.4 effective field goal percentage on those attempts (which was an outrageous 31.7 percentage points above their shot quality).

Several of Denver’s early defensive miscues were thanks to the appropriate fear Butler puts into any action he’s involved in. Here’s what happened on one of Game 2’s first plays: Jamal Murray initially switches onto Butler, then when Butler passes it to Gabe Vincent and chases it to set a ball screen, both Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope follow Jimmy on his dive to the rim and walk away from the shooter. An unforced blunder:

Related: I was never the strongest math student, but I do remember that three is more than two. There’s an opportunity cost that accompanies every decision, gamble, or shift. The Nuggets should realize sooner or later that, while Miami can still win playoff games without erupting behind the 3-point line, the odds dramatically tilt in its favor when it does.

NBA coaches respect the hell out of Butler’s cutthroat nature, but they also believe in the law of averages. The idea being: a well-contested 2-point jump shot is more desirable than an open spot-up 3 or a driving layup against a rotating defense. So long as Denver doesn’t foul, it can survive these possessions.

The Nuggets have plenty of time to adjust in some simple ways. One is, when Butler is matchup hunting, to make sure everyone involved understands the game plan. Whether it’s a hedge or a switch, keep Butler at bay, and guard him straight up. Several of Denver’s mistakes in Game 2 came because two defenders were scared to leave Butler’s body for a beat too long.

Whether it’s Murray, KCP, or Bruce Brown, this strategy can be the lesser of two evils over 48 minutes. “I think at the end of the day it’s about him making a tough shot,” Nuggets forward Jeff Green said. “Or when he is probing and trying to make a play for his teammates, we are aware of where his team is.”

The Celtics were criticized for letting Butler go at Derrick White in the second round. The optics weren’t great, but that strategy was prudent. According to Second Spectrum, the Heat generated a feeble 0.79 points per possession when White switched on a Butler ball screen. There were bully-ball baskets for sure, but as the series went on, whenever the Celtics left White on an island against Butler, they fared pretty well.

Since Butler sprained his ankle at the end of Game 1 against the Knicks, he’s shooting just 41.5 percent from the floor and 31.6 percent behind the 3-point line. On unassisted opportunities, per Second Spectrum, he’s at 33.7 percent on jumpers, 45.3 percent on layups, 26.3 percent on floaters, and 38.4 percent out of the post.

Since Game 2 against the Celtics, his true shooting percentage is below 50. If the guy who torched Jrue Holiday appears for an entire game, the Nuggets can reassess their strategy. But right now, Butler’s greatness revolves around getting his teammates quality looks.

“A lot of times he’s driving to pass, not necessarily to shoot,” Michael Porter Jr. said. “We have to fan out to the shooters. They got way too many open 3s the first couple games.”

There are tweaks, too. Instead of going over on most screens—especially when Butler has an empty corner—the Nuggets should duck under way more than they have been.

Here’s what happened when Denver actually did go under against Butler in Game 2:

And then there are plays like the one below. As Butler isolates against Aaron Gordon on the wing, Caleb Martin cuts to the weakside corner and Caldwell-Pope doesn’t follow him, instead staying put at the elbow. KCP motions for Porter to cover Max Strus, but that never happens. Instead, with five seconds on the shot clock, Butler flicks a dart to his open teammate, Caldwell-Pope closes out at an awkward angle, and Miami adds three points to the scoreboard:

Here’s Murray doing the same thing, resulting in a clumsy closeout and defensive breakdown:

Butler is methodical, strong, and deliberate. Those qualities are less effective against someone as large as Gordon. Going back to Game 1, Denver did Butler a favor in a similar one-on-one situation, with Porter helping so far off his own man it looked like the Nuggets were in a zone:

“Yeah, I think [we were] probably over-helping a tad bit. AG has been doing a pretty good job limiting his shots, him getting downhill,” Porter said. “He’s facilitating. He’s a winning player who likes to get his teammates involved.”

Butler has had some success collapsing the defense on drives in these first two games, and Denver’s decision to shrink the floor on these plays would look less costly if the Heat missed 3s like a normal basketball team. But such an aggressive defensive strategy activates everyone else on Miami’s roster.

“If your role players can step in and start playing great, it’s usually because they feel a confidence level from the best players, and that’s Jimmy and Bam,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They infuse all of our guys to be aggressive. The way [the Nuggets] defend, they’re prioritizing protecting the paint against [Jimmy], so he has to make the right reads.”

This critical miscalculation late in Game 2 is a perfect example, where instead of handling the Butler–Bam Adebayo pick-and-roll with Gordon and Jokic, Porter is on the strong side, clogging the lane and allowing Butler to spray a pass out to Vincent for 3:

“They’re in a drop. They kind of bring a third defender over,” Martin said. “They’re trying to put bodies in the paint on him … but it’s still gonna be tough because he just finds avenues and cracks to get into the defense. You can only do so much with guys like him. He’s gonna get to his spots eventually. It’s just our job to try and make it easy on him by being available.”

Here’s Jokic in a deep drop, Brown pinched in as the third defender, and Butler reacting with a quick pass to Martin, who sets Strus up with a wide-open 3. Porter’s defense on the weakside, once again, has to be tighter. (Unrelated but noteworthy sidenote: Watch Heat assistant coach Malik Allen in the clip below. As soon as the shot goes up, he’s motioning for Miami to get back on defense. Limiting transition opportunities is a huge reason this series is competitive.)

None of this is foolproof. Butler’s playoff run is a fever dream that’s often felt like Goodfellas’ third act scored by the Indiana Jones theme song. He’s an anxiety-inducing, smirk-at-death lionheart who’s led the Heat on a journey that has simultaneously made very little sense and had the predictability of a rising sun.

How Denver is playing him might not even be wrong—it worked in Game 1 because Miami missed the open 3s Butler created—if it just executed way better than it has been.

“I feel like we’ve had some breakdowns that are uncharacteristic of us,” Gordon said. “I could have been better on defense … just sticking to the game plan a little bit better as far as, like, rejects, or switching, or low man, or just the game plan discipline, knowing the personnel.”

But at the end of the day, Butler will not go out of his way to take 25 tough shots. He doesn’t want to back KCP, Murray, or Brown down in the post on 12 straight possessions. Doing so isn’t efficient basketball. It puts a lid on his teammates and doesn’t even make Jokic work on defense. In Game 3, the Nuggets may want to mimic Miami’s plan and do what the Heat tried in Game 2: Invite their opponent’s best player to score the ball.