The big batch of Finals-related questions
There’s no need for a big preamble here. The Finals begin tonight. Here’s what I’ll be watching out for.
How does Miami match up?
Is Bam up to the challenge of Jokic?
How much zone can the Heat get away with?
This trio of questions is probably what will determine whether or not the Heat can make it a series.
We saw in the Western Conference Finals that L.A.’s best defense came when the Lakers were able to guard Nikola Jokic with Rui Hachimura, which allowed Anthony Davis to roam away from Aaron Gordon and cut off access to the paint. Do the Heat have the personnel to execute something like this strategy? Honestly, probably not. Who’s playing the Rui role here? Kevin Love? Haywood Highsmith? Do you really want to tax Caleb Martin that way physically, given what you need from him on offense? If the Heat go back to Love in the starting lineup, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them at least attempt this strategy at times; but if they stay small (and I think they will), then it’s going to be up to Bam to rise to the challenge.
In the 12 games the Heat and Nuggets have played against each other, Jokic has pretty thoroughly dominated. (Bam only played three minutes in one of the games during his rookie season, but has mostly had his regular role for the rest of them.) His averages of 22.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game are pretty standard Jokic stuff, and the Nuggets have gone 10-2 in those contests. If you isolate the six matchups sine Jokic ascended to being an MVP-level player, he's at 22.2, 12.5, and 8.5, while shooting 63.5% from the field and 41.7% from deep. Denver is 6-0 with an average margin of victory of over 13 points per game.
Physically, it’s just a very tough matchup for Bam. He’s one of the best and best-conditioned athletes in the league regardless of position, but he is giving up three inches and something like 30 pounds to Jokic, who despite his lumbering is actually quite agile in addition to being preposterously strong. There’s only so much a man Bam’s size can do to prevent Jokic from getting where he wants to go on the floor.
When you don’t have a specific player who can hold up against the opponent’s biggest threat, you can just go to a zone, right? Well, probably not. The Nuggets generated the league's third-best shots against zone this season, according to Second Spectrum, and ripped off 1.202 points per possession on those trips. The combination of Jokic’s passing and the shooting of Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is hell to deal with, and even if one of the shooters misses, you have to deal with the issue of rebounding — which is tougher to do from a zone — while Jokic and Aaron Gordon crash the boards. It doesn’t seem like something the Heat can get away with all that much of.
So, we move to the other side of the ball.
How healthy is Jimmy and which version of Playoff Jimmy are we getting?
Can Caleb Martin keep it up?
During the Milwaukee series, Jimmy Butler went scorched earth, shooting 59.7% from the field and 44.4% from deep while averaging 37.6 points, in addition to his 6.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. In the two series since, he has still been quite good: 24.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per night. Never going to catch many people complaining about that type of production. But he's sneakily shot only 42.4% from the field and 28.1% from deep and has made more than half his shots just once since Game 5 against the Bucks. Miami needs him in this series to be something much closer to Jimmy-against-the-Bucks than Jimmy-against-the-Knicks-and-Celtics. Physically, is he up to that, given his various injury issues at the moment?
If not, a whole lot falls onto the shoulders of Caleb Martin and (to a lesser extent) Gabe Vincent.
Martin scored 14-plus points in every game against Boston, and averaged 15.2 per game on a 55-44-80 shooting line against the Celtics and Knicks. He’s made multiple threes in 13 of Miami’s 18 playoff games (~72%) after doing so in only 24 of 71 regular-season contests (~34%). The level of shooting he kept up in the Boston series seems unsustainable, but it’s also not like he was just feasting on the wide-open-est of wide-open looks all series: He actually had about a half-foot less of space, on average, between himself and the closest defender on threes against the Celtics than he did during the regular season, per Second Spectrum. Whether he can continue shooting the lights out if Denver similarly closes his space is up for debate.
More crucial might be whether Martin can keep up the increased level of off-the-dribble creation he showed against the Celtics and Knicks. During the regular season, he attempted 4.1 shots per 100 possessions after two dribbles or more. In the playoffs, that number has spiked to 5.6 per 100 possessions. Against, Boston it was 8.3 per 100 — more than double where it was during the regular season. And he connected on those shots at a 56.3% effective field-goal percentage, a mark well above the league average for those attempts. So again I ask, can he keep that up?
Similarly, albeit with less consistency, Gabe Vincent has been knocking down shots and creating off the bounce. He connected on more than half his threes against the Celtics and is just south of 40% for the playoffs as a whole. He also averaged more than 2 additional drives per 100 possessions during the Celtics series, taking on additional creative burden while Butler and Adebayo weren’t necessarily their best selves offensively. He’s probably going to be guarded by Jamal Murray, and will have to do either a fair bit of creating or screening for Butler to negotiate switches into favorable matchups. Either way, it’s quite an important role.