Nikola Jokic’s superpower on the basketball court is that he always makes the right play. At 7-foot, 280 pounds, Jokic is one of the biggest and strongest players in the NBA, but the first thing associated with his game is his passing. The two-time MVP is the best passing big man ever, and even that might be underselling him: this is a floor general on par with Chris Paul, Jason Kidd, and the other greats to play the game.
Jokic prefers to set up teammates over scoring himself, but passing the ball isn’t always the right play. The Nuggets superstar will score when that’s what the defense is giving him, and making him do so was the Miami Heat’s apparent strategy in Game 2 of the 2023 NBA Finals.
The Heat beat the Nuggets, 111-108, to the tie the championship series 1-1 and steal homecourt advantage. Jokic put up a monstrous stat line of 41 points on 16-of-28 shooting, but he only finished with four assists. Holding Jokic to such a low assist total is a monumental achievement: he only finished with four or fewer assists three times in the regular season, and those games were typically blowouts.
It’s no secret that the Nuggets are at their best when Jokic is a facilitator. After the game, a stat was widely circulated that the Nuggets are now 0-3 in these NBA Playoffs, and 0-4 all-time in the playoffs, when Jokic scores 40 points or more.
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra was asked about his team’s apparent gameplan to force Jokic into scoring, and blasted the question. Spoelstra said only the “untrained eye” would believe he tried to make Jokic score.
Erik Spoelstra shut down Ramona Shelburne's question about turning Jokic into a scorer or a passer quickly pic.twitter.com/PxcWQNN5w4— CJ Fogler account may or may not be notable (@cjzero) June 5, 2023
Of course, Spo is the Heat’s resident genius, and he’s not going to give away his strategies in a post-game press conference.
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr had his own observations after the game. Appearing on Draymond Green’s podcast, Kerr said “what Miami did tonight was make Jokic a scorer and take away other people.”
Spo on Ramona’s qn about turning Jokic into a scorer vs playmaker: “that’s ridiculous… it’s the untrained eye that says something like that”— Steven Adams Stats (@funakistats) June 5, 2023
Steve Kerr on Draymond’s post-game show: “What Miami did tonight… they said let’s make Jokic a scorer and take away other people”
Kerr shared more of his observations on Miami’s strategy in the pod, saying the Heat clearly decided to take away Jamal Murray as the “head of the snake” with blitzes and stunts. Murray finished the game with 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting and had 10 assists.
Jokic took 28 shots in Game 2, which was more than he took in any regular season game. This was a big difference from Game 1, when Jokic had double-digit assists in the first half, and finished the game with 12 total shots. Most of those Game 1 field goal attempts came in the fourth quarter when the Heat started to make a comeback. Per Michael Pina of The Ringer, the Nuggets were 14-2 when Jokic attempted 10 or fewer shots in the regular season, and 7-13 when he recorded eight or fewer assists.
The big adjustment from the tip for Miami in Game 2 was starting Kevin Love. This allowed Jimmy Butler to check Jamal Murray with Love on Aaron Gordon, and set up the Heat to limit Murray’s on-ball creation opportunities. With the defense focused on Murray, Jokic made the right play, which was looking for his own scoring. He scored efficiently all night, but Miami still won the game.
Spoelstra clearly saw something on film that matched the general consensus: the Nuggets are at their best when Jokic is racking up assists. The superstar center had an incredible scoring game, but that’s just what the Heat wanted.