DENVER — The Miami Heat understand that if they want to win the 2023 NBA championship, they are going to have to slow down Nikola Jokic. They know the challenge of doing that has proved to be difficult for the rest of the league, but it’s an assignment they believe they are ready for heading into Game 1 of the NBA Finals against Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night.
“He’s very unique,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Wednesday. “He doesn’t really have any noticeable weaknesses in terms of his size, his skill set. He’s one of one in the myriad of ways that he can impact the game and impact winning.”
In order to make the two-time MVP’s life on the floor more difficult, Heat star Jimmy Butler and his teammates know they must keep an eye on the big man everywhere he goes.
Guarding him as a team with all five guys,” Butler said. “He does everything so well, and we’re going to have to be in the gaps, we’re going to have to gang rebound. We can’t have defensive lapses. We’re just going to have to get after it. I think at the end of the day, he’s a major key, as DJ Khaled would say, and we’re going to have to lock in.”
Heat center Bam Adebayo figures to get the majority of the time guarding Jokic. Heat big men Kevin Love and Cody Zeller didn’t play much at all at the end of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics, but Spoelstra said that matchups and minutes could unfold differently in this series. For his part, Adebayo reiterated that the key in guarding Jokic is making him take difficult shots.
“Force him into tough shots, and live with the result,” Adebayo said. “That’s the biggest thing for me. I feel like this is one of those series where he becomes very dangerous when you let his teammates get involved, and he can make those incredible passes and end up with 12 assists.”
For his part, Jokic doesn’t seem too concerned about how the Heat will defend him — man-to-man or a zone defense, which they have employed at various points throughout the postseason.
“You’re going to see tomorrow,” Jokic said Wednesday, when asked how the zone affects his play.
“But we saw the zone. Definitely we didn’t see this kind of zone, because they are switching zones and they’re really, really messing up the game in their favor. We just need to be focused and solid in what we are doing because that’s why they are great, that’s why they are winning, that’s why they’re in the Finals. They’re messing the game in their way, and they’re doing that really good.”
As the Heat prepare for Jokic, they do so with a businesslike approach that has defined their postseason run. They sounded both confident and focused during media day on Wednesday, and they have followed the tone that Butler has set for the group.
“I would like to say that I’m never rattled,” Butler said. “I’m very calm. I’m very consistent in everything that I do, whether it’s before the game, after the game, during the game, and I think when my guys look at me like that, they follow suit in every single way.
“I love that about them because they’re never shook. No matter what. We could be down, people can think that we’re out, and all of a sudden, we’re right back in this thing — and it’s because we do the same thing every day. We love being around each other. We want to see each other succeed. We really do enjoy when each other play well, and we’re going to continue to do that, never going to get rattled, and we’re going to see where we end up.”
Spoelstra echoed a similar tone while praising the culture that Nuggets coach Michael Malone and his staff have created around Jokic and their team.
“I don’t know why maybe the mainstream media have kind of slept on Denver,” Spoelstra said. “But when we saw them in the bubble, we thought, all right, this team is going to be doing basically what they’re doing this year, then up until now. We thought this would be a run for a long time. If [Jamal] Murray didn’t get hurt, they probably would have had a couple of Finals berths. That’s how great of a duo they are and a system Mike and his staff have built that really fits.
“I think, we all think, they’re legit, and in some ways, it’s a mirror-image series, not in terms of style but teams that probably have been overlooked, underestimated, built a chip on their shoulder over that. It’s lined up to be a great competition.”