In Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the Denver Nuggets found ways to attack the Miami Heat zone with slashing and cutting, overwhelming the Heat with size and athleticism at the rim.

Christian Braun in particular was a force to be reckoned with, as the Nuggets took advantage of his relentless energy and athleticism to find the gaps in the Heat zone.

Braun had struggled to find ways to impact the series up until this point. Teams have dared him to shoot, and he’s been reluctant, even hitting the side of the backboard on a left corner three on Wednesday. Against the Heat, his best role is as a cutter or slasher offensively, taking away the threat of his shooting that the Heat weren’t respecting anyway and instead becoming a threat at the rim. That’s where a 40-inch vertical can change a series.

In Game 4, the Heat will be ready for that. They already started to make adjustments to Denver’s offense in the fourth quarter. When in man coverage instead of zone, they forced Denver’s cutting angle from the opposite wing to take a more circuitous route to the basket, picking up Bruce Brown higher up the floor and forcing a tough shot.

Also in man coverage, the Heat started blitzing Jamal Murray in earnest, who had 34 points and 10 assists but seven turnovers in Game 3. That appears to be a significant part of the game plan going forward, as Bam Adebayo has struggled enough with Nikola Jokić in post coverage. Rather than let the ball get to Jokić at all, the Heat want to try and prevent Jokić from touching it by forcing Murray into some turnovers.

In addition, Murray’s left hand will be an interesting factor to monitor. He sustained floor burn during this game, and some of the skin appears to have been rubbed off the heel of his hand completely.

Murray used a hand wrap at practice on Thursday and will assumably use something similar on Friday for Game 4. It didn’t appear to affect Murray too much overall, but dribbling with his left hand and trying to beat the pressure of some of the best defenders in the game could loom larger on Friday night.

What stands out about most of Denver’s possessions from Wednesday night was the ability of Jokić and Murray to navigate tight spaces within the defense. Most of that comes from the defense’s reaction to a heavy emphasis on cutting instead of an emphasis on spacing. The Nuggets shot just 5-of-18 from three-point range in Game 3, including 4-of-8 from three for Murray and Jokić combined. That means that the “floor spacers” for Denver were a combined 1-of-10 from three-point range. Denver winning the game anyway was extremely impressive.

Michael Porter Jr. shot just 1-of-7 from the field and 0-of-2 from three on Wednesday night. He had a couple of great looks from distance that he was basically required to shoot, but outside of that, he wasn’t very aggressive.


“Sometimes the ball just doesn’t go in,” Porter told present media on Thursday afternoon during availability. “I think a lot of shots have been right there, I’ve just missed.”

“I know my teammates have confidence in my shot. I know my coaches do. Yeah, I’ll get it going. Hopefully tomorrow is a better game for me on that side of the floor.”

The Nuggets need it to be a better game from Porter in order to win Game 4. The Heat are making their adjustments to counter Denver’s cutting and slashing. That leaves them vulnerable to the outside shooting of elite floor spacers, and Michael Porter Jr. is “one of the best shooters on planet earth” according to his teammate Aaron Gordon.

On the other end of the floor, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo combined to shoot 18-of-45 from the field in Game 3. Butler attempted just four free throws, which puts a larger emphasis on where that duo likes to attack: the rim and the mid-range.

In Game 3, Jokić had one of his best rim protecting games of recent memory. The Heat shot just 4-of-11 from the field on shots that were less than six feet from the rim, including great contests on Butler and Adebayo that didn’t allow them easy shots whenever they wanted.

The Nuggets have allowed just 21.4% of Miami’s shooting possessions to occur within four feet of the rim in this series, according to Cleaning the Glass. That would rank well below the last place Phoenix Suns in terms of regular season shot frequency at the rim, and it’s the most important thing the Nuggets can do against the Heat. They may have plenty of shooters, but like the Golden State Warriors, the Heat want to leverage that shooting into easier shots at the rim, something that just isn’t happening in this series.

On top of that, the Heat are maintaining an absurdly low 54.7 FG% at the rim in this series, according to Cleaning the Glass, which would be by far the lowest FG% during the regular season for any team. Denver’s shut the water off at the rim, and it’s forcing the Heat to find other ways to score.

Bam Adebayo is feasting in the mid-range area this series, hitting 8-of-13 mid-range shots (61.5%). Fortunately for the Nuggets, that efficiency hasn’t extended to the paint, where he’s shooting 20-of-46 (43.5%). That’s a number the Nuggets will live with, and as long as they continue contesting Adebayo and preventing the easy layups and push shots, Denver will feel pretty good about the way they’ve contested Adebayo in halfcourt situations.

The one player on the Heat that can break what the Nuggets are doing is Jimmy Butler. At 6’7″ with Butler’s ball handling skills, strength, and confidence, he’s due for having a big, big game. Averaging just 20.7 points and 6.7 assists per game while shooting 42.1% from the field and 36.4% from three in the Finals so far, there’s no doubt that Butler’s capable of a major outburst. When he gets Murray on a mismatch or somebody like Bruce Brown or Christian Braun, Butler has to find a way to punish that matchup at the rim more frequently.

Of course, when it’s been Aaron Gordon, Butler has struggled to generate consistent separation. He’s hit some outside shots, but against Gordon, Butler has attempted just 14 shots in the series. He’s not attacking Gordon directly, and when he brings Jokić into the action to get a screen from Adebayo, Butler is facing down Denver’s two best defenders at preventing shots at the rim. Butler’s still found ways to be successful, but it’s not with the same ferocity that he attacked the Milwaukee Bucks or Boston Celtics (early in that series).

There’s some credence to the idea that Butler is dealing with a nagging injury that hasn’t been publicized, but if he doesn’t shake that off soon, the Heat may have to turn to even more shooting heavy lineups around him and emphasize those players more consistently.

Gabe Vincent and Kyle Lowry are two important players for the Heat for the rest of this series. Their ability to generate separation on the perimeter and hit pull-up jumpers will be a big, big deal. Vincent has done most of his damage as a shooter off the catch, but the Nuggets will live with those attempts as long as they’re contested shots. It’s more difficult for the Nuggets to consistently contest those jumpers in ball screen situations. Jokić played higher up the floor in Game 3 to try and prevent shots and pocket passes to Adebayo. Perhaps the Heat attempt to drive around Jokić’s at-the-level defense this time around to create better shooting and passing angles.

Whatever happens tonight, expect Michael Porter Jr. and Jimmy Butler to be the two swing factors. The Heat need Butler to be at his best to win the series, and that starts with a better performance in Game 4. For the Nuggets, Porter’s due for positive regression to the mean as a shooter. He can break Miami’s aggressive help in their zone and man concepts by simply hitting open jumpers or finding offensive rebound opportunities.

It’s a big game tonight, a change to take a 3-1 lead back to your home floor in Denver. If that happens, the Nuggets will have so much momentum in front of their home crowd. They’ll have every advantage they need.

If the Heat win tonight, it becomes a Best-of-3 series. The Nuggets will still have the advantage, but this is the NBA Finals. Anything can happen.