Jimmy Butler’s defense against Jamal Murray takes center stage as Game 3 looms

MIAMI — Bam Adebayo needed to hear the question again, so I repeated it.

“Jamal Murray,” I say. “Jimmy spent a lot of time on him in Game 2. He had a calmer Game 2. I wonder what you saw from Jimmy in that defensive game.”

“He’s up to the challenge,” said Adebayo, who himself is up to an awfully tough challenge in these 2023 NBA Finals, in the form of Nuggets superstar two-time MVP Nikola Jokić. “Whatever the mission, I have a feeling he will rise to the challenge. He will find a way to make it difficult for her.

Not the most Accurate and detailed answer all the time, but I think we can cut Bam some slack. After all, You try to answer the questions while it happens a few meters to your right:

Jimmy Butler, friends. Making “making it hard for him” has seemed easy since time immemorial.

Erik Spoelstra’s first big tactical change between games in these finals came when he decided to bring Caleb Martin back to the bench in favor of Kevin Love returning to the starting box alongside Adebayo. This line-up had been very successful for the Heat in the early rounds of the playoffs, but became untenable once the Celtics decided to launch just one big man, eliminating a defensive matchup for Love. Against a Denver team that starts big – huge, really – with Jokić, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. on the front line, however, Spoelstra decided to bring Love back in size to try and limit the types of post-ups , deep seals, duck-ins and bully-ball that the Nuggets feasted on in Game 1.

The realignment paid off. Love had a team-high 10 rebounds, landed a pair of steals, took on a charge, and played sharp assist defense; the Heat outscored Denver by 18 points in 22 minutes in their 111-108 win on Sunday. A significant downstream effect of Love’s entry into the roster, however, was how it prompted Spoelstra to juggle Miami’s defensive matchups. In Game 1, Butler guarded Gordon for nearly 61% of the time they shared the floor, according to NBA Advanced Stats; Murray, controlled mostly by the smaller Gabe Vincent, had a brilliant Finals debut, scoring 26 points on 11-for-22 shooting with 10 assists in Denver’s series-opening victory.

DENVER, COLORADO – JUNE 04: Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets dribbles past Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat during the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena on June 04, 2023 in Denver, Colorado.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photograph, user accepts the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Jimmy Butler defends Jamal Murray closely during the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the NBA Finals at the Ball Arena on Sunday in Denver. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

In Game 2, however, with Love lined up against Gordon in 4th place, Butler moved in to collect Murray. Not all the time – “It’s not just Jimmy … Murray will attract second defensemen, third defensemen,” Spoelstra was quick to note during Heat practice on Saturday – but on more than half of the possessions they shared on floor.

“He scores in so many different ways,” Butler said. “He has the ball consistently and he makes all the right plays, all the right passes. But it’s just a matter of effort, contesting every blow, body to body, making everything difficult for him.

Well, mission accomplished: Murray had 12 points on 12 shots in 36 minutes of work with 2:35 left in Game 2.

“The mentality is the same,” Murray said of his approach going from a regular diet of Vincent and Martin in Game 1 to covering Butler in Game 2 (and, presumably, beyond). “I’ve seen a lot of defenders throughout my career. Jimmy is a good defender. I have good hands, anticipation.

To his credit, Murray finished Game 2 with 18, courtesy of a pair of huge 3s in that 2:35 finale; he would have had more if not for one failed keeper and one leading edge end-of-second EQ. The fact that he didn’t play, however, played a huge role in the Heat sending this series back to Miami tied at one game apiece rather than 2-0…and Butler’s all-court harassment, who kept Murray at just 3-for -6 shooting when they were paired, played a huge role in ensuring his relatively quiet production was much harder to come by.

Butler’s work counted in some ways: challenged looks gone wrong, dribbling broken and pushed cleanly, ball pressure that caused Murray to rethink his options in the air, and Denver’s half of two-man play been suffocated. Cut Moorhead of Heat.com noted that Murray scored just 0.75 points per pick-and-roll run against Miami drop coverage in Game 2 – an area where Butler’s ability to cross the high screens, staying connected and using his length and physicality to bother Murray as he came out of the pick likely contributed to the struggles.

He sang the loudest, however, in the moments when nothing happened – or, rather, when something else did.

Murray led all players in Game 1 in total touches, frontcourt touches and time of possession, according to Second Spectrum; his fingerprints, Spoelstra might say, were all over the competition. In Game 2, though? Thirty-five fewer total touches for Murray, 12 fewer in the frontcourt and 2.6 fewer minutes on the ball. He took seven fewer shots in 39 minutes of play and only seven of the 15 he relieved entered the arc.

“To be honest, I didn’t realize,” Jokić said. “I mean, when you’re playing the game, you don’t think about it. You’re just trying to win. But yeah, we definitely have to move it forward.

There are a few caveats to note in these numbers. It was a slower-paced game — just 86 offensive possessions for Denver, down from 93 in Game 1, which was their slowest game of the season, just before a February game against… the Heat. (“We want to play fast,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said in practice Tuesday. “They want to play slow.”) Murray also played about five minutes less in Game 2 than in Game 1. Possession numbers likely would have equalized at a slightly higher rate and Malone had leaned harder on his star point guard again.

Even so, though: Go back through Game 2 and you’ll find the possessions where Jokić and Denver’s other passers, considering their options, decided to look elsewhere rather than try to force the ball to the guy covered by the five-time All – Defensive team.

“The most important thing for us is to force everyone in the team to take hard shots, and you live with that result,” Adebayo said.

Although, perhaps – at the risk of raising Spoelstra’s ire with the suggestion – those hard knocks are taken by the two-time MVP.

“He’s one of the heads of the serpent,” Butler said. “I think it’s a two-headed snake, then.”

Although getting bitten by a standard one-headed snake is still not amusing, it also might not kill you. Yes, the Nuggets offense did well overall in Game 2, and yes, Jokić scored 41 points. With Murray limited and the tempo interrupted, the offensive efficiency of Denver’s starting lineup went from 118.2 points per 100 possessions in Game 1 to just 100 flat in Game 2. At a point in the season when every margin matters, that change – those slow starts in the first and third quarters where the Nuggets wouldn’t stop Or buckets – helped tip the tide of play in Miami’s favor just enough to take the home court advantage.

The challenge facing Butler and the rest of the Heat now? Continue to keep Murray a secret.

“I have to keep doing it, because I know if I lead the way to that end, with Bam, everyone has to follow,” Butler said. “It’s about doing your job, doing what is asked of you every night and hoping, praying that you’ve done enough to win.”

The task for Murray and the Nuggets, in turn, is to stay aggressive despite Butler’s coverage and trust their teammates to find ways to make Miami pay.

“Aggressiveness isn’t just about shooting the ball,” Murray said. “If I’m downhill and I pass to another guy who’s open, I’m the one being aggressive… It’s a team sport. It’s not really about me.

At some point, however, Denver might need Murray to do it about him – to look one of the best perimeter defenders in the world and be brash enough not to blink; to find ways to throw it away, create more separation to cook, and make that other head bite again.

“Obviously he’s a bit taller than me. I’m not going to tell you how to beat him,” Murray said with a smile. “But I have my means.”

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