DENVER — For the Miami Heat, shooting at Denver's 5,280 feet of mile-high altitude during Game 1 of the NBA Finals wasn’t a problem.
Not shooting from 15 feet — the distance from the basket to the foul line — was.
The Heat made NBA history, and not the good kind, by shooting only two free throws in Game 1 as Denver struck first in the title series with a 104-93 win. It was the fewest free throw attempts ever by a team in a playoff game and makes one of the adjustments for Game 2 on Sunday simple to forecast: Expect Miami to go into attack mode.
“The attacks, we didn’t have enough of them,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, whose team sent Denver to the line for 20 free throws in Game 1. “I thought the free throw disparity was appropriate. Maybe we could have got two, four, six more based on a call here or a call there. But overall our attack numbers were lower, and that usually translates into lower free throw attempts.”
Adjustments at playoff time are considered some mystical thing, as if a team is going to completely reinvent itself during the day or two between games. They're usually nothing more than minor tweaks, maybe a lineup change, a slight shift in how a pick-and-roll is defended.
The Nuggets are used to this by now. They are 4-0 in Game 1s in these playoffs — having led them by 32, 25, 21 and 24 points, respectively. And the teams that lost those games, obviously, had the infamous adjustments to make going into Game 2.
They worked. Sort of. Denver's biggest leads in the three Game 2s it has played so far are 21, 12 and 12 points. That's less than the Game 1 margins, but not enough to affect the outcome. The Nuggets are 3-0 in those games, too.
And if you think that has Nuggets coach Michael Malone at ease, well, think again.
“I told our players today, don’t read the paper, don’t listen to the folks on the radio and TV saying that this series is over and that we’ve done something, because we haven’t done a damn thing,” Malone said. “We won Game 1. The reason I told our players I was excited this morning is because we won Game 1 and we didn’t play well, and there’s so many things we can do better. If we do those things at a better level, we’ll have a chance to win Game 2.”
There's always things to do better. Even for Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, believe it or not.
They joined Magic Johnson and James Worthy, in 1987, as the only teammates to have at least 25 points and 10 assists in the same finals game — and the Nuggets' duo did it in their finals debut. Jokic had a 27-point triple-double, Murray finished with 26, and the stage was clearly not too big for Denver's two best players.
Denver is also trying to be the first team to start a postseason 10-0 at home since Boston in 2018.
“You just try to win every game. It’s first to four, no matter how you get it done,” Murray said. “Obviously, you want to take advantage of being at home. Love playing at home. But any game you can win, you take. So, yeah, we’re looking forward to just winning every single game that we play.”
This is Miami's first 1-0 deficit of the postseason. The Heat won Game 1s on the road in Milwaukee, New York and Boston on their way to the finals; no team had ever won four Game 1s away from home in the same postseason.
And while the Nuggets are saying — correctly, too — that they missed plenty of open shots, the Heat can absolutely point to that as a way they'll improve in Game 2. Max Strus (0 for 10), Caleb Martin (1 for 7) and Duncan Robinson (1 for 6) were a combined 2 for 23 from the floor in Game 1, 2 for 16 from 3-point range.
That would be the simplest and most effective adjustment Miami could make for Sunday — make shots.
“I’m going to continue play the right way. I’m going to pass the ball to my shooters the way I have been playing the entire playoffs, the entire year,” said Heat forward Jimmy Butler, who scored 13 in Game 1, his lowest-scoring game so far in these playoffs.
“But I think I’ve got to be more aggressive putting pressure on the rim,” he said. “I think that makes everybody’s job a lot easier. They definitely follow suit whenever I’m aggressive on both sides of the ball. So, I have to be the one to come out and kick that off the right way — which I will — and we’ll see where we end up.”