September 24, 2023

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

MIAMI – Bam Adebayo had to hear the question again, so I repeated it.

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

“He’s up to the challenge,” said Adebayo, who himself is taking on an incredibly tough challenge in this 2023 NBA Finals in the form of Nuggets superstar two-time MVP Nikola Jokić. “Whatever the assignment, I feel like he’s up for the challenge. He’ll find a way to make it difficult for him.”

Not the most all time specific and detailed answer, but I think we can give Adebayo some leeway. Finally, you try to answer questions while doing so a few feet to the right:

Jimmy Butler, folks. Making it easy to “make it hard for him” since time immemorial.

Erik Spoelstra’s first major tactical shift between games in this Final came when he decided to move Caleb Martin back to the bench in favor of returning Kevin Love to the starting frontcourt alongside Adebayo. That alignment had been very successful for the Heat in the opening rounds of the playoffs, but became untenable when the Celtics decided to start just one big man, effectively removing a defensive game for Love. Against a Denver team that starts big – huge, in fact – with Jokić, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. along the front lines, however, Spoelstra decided to cut back Love’s size to try and limit the type of post-ups, deep seals. duck-ins and bully-ball that the Nuggets feast on in Game 1.

The rearrangement bore fruit. Love pulled down a team-high 10 rebounds, grabbed a few steals, recorded an offense and played a sharp relief defense; the Heat defeated Denver by 18 points in its 22 minutes in their 111-108 win on Sunday. However, a major downstream effect of Love getting into the lineup was how it led Spoelstra to juggle Miami’s defensive matchups. In Game 1, Butler guarded Gordon nearly 61% of the time they shared the floor, according to NBA Advanced Stats; Murray, controlled mostly by the smaller Gabe Vincent, made a brilliant Finals debut, scoring 26 points on 11-for-22 shooting with 10 assists in Denver’s opening win.

DENVER, COLORADO - JUNE 04: Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets dribbles against Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat during the fourth quarter in Game Two of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena on June 4, 2023 in Denver, Colorado.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photo, User agrees to the terms of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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

But in Game 2, with Love lining up against Gordon in 4th spot, Butler switched to pick up Murray. Not all the time — “It’s not just Jimmy…Murray will be pulling second defenders, third defenders,” Spoelstra was quick to note during Heat practice Saturday — but on more than half of the possessions they shared the floor on.

“He scores in so many different ways,” Butler said. “He has the ball constantly and he reads the right things, the right passes. But it’s just about effort, contesting every shot, 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 mindset is the same,” Murray said of his approach, ranging from Vincent and Martin’s steady diet in Game 1 to Butler’s coverage in Game 2 (and presumably beyond). “I’ve seen a lot of defenders in my career. Jimmy is a good defender. Got great hands, anticipation.

To his credit, Murray finished Game 2 with 18, thanks to some huge 3’s in that final 2:35; he would have had more if not for one missed goalkeeper and a front-rimmed late second equalizer. However, his not playing a huge part in the Heat sending this series back to Miami with a game-per-game tie instead of 2-0 down… -6 shooting when they matched played a big part in making sure that his relatively muted production was a lot harder to come by.

Butler’s job mattered in some obvious ways: Contested looks went awry, dribbles were interrupted and jabbed clean, ball pressure made Murray rethink his options in the air, and half of Denver’s bread-and-butter two-man play was stifled. Couper Moorhead of noted that Murray scored just 0.75 points per pick-and-roll run against Miami’s drop coverage in Game 2 – an area where Butler’s ability to get across the screens, staying connected and using his height and physicality to harass Murray when he came off the pick probably contributed to the fight.

However, it sang loudest when nothing happened – or rather, when something else happened.

According to Second Spectrum, Murray led all players in Game 1 in total touches, frontcourt strikes, and possession; his fingerprints, like Spoelstra might say, were all over the game. But in game 2? Thirty-five fewer touches for Murray, 12 fewer in the frontcourt and 2.6 fewer minutes on the ball. He took seven fewer shots in his 39 minutes of play and only seven of 15 shots came in the arc.

“To be honest, I didn’t realize it,” Jokić said. “I mean, when you play the game, you don’t think about it. You’re just trying to win. But yes, we definitely need to get it going.”

There are a few caveats worth noting in those numbers. It was a slower game – just 86 offensive possessions for Denver, up 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 during Tuesday’s practice. “They want to play slow.”) Murray also played about five minutes less in Game 2 than in Game 1. slightly faster pace had leveled out and Malone had once again leaned harder on his star point guard.

Still, go back to Game 2 and you’ll find the possessions where Jokić’s and Denver’s other passers-by, exploring their options, decided to look elsewhere instead of trying to force the ball to the man the five-time All was covered
. -Defense teamer.

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

Even if, perhaps – at the risk of arousing Spoelstra’s wrath with the suggestion – those hard shots are made by the two-time MVP.

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

While being bitten by a standard one-headed snake still isn’t pleasure, it can’t kill you either. Yes, the Nuggets offense generally performed well in Game 2, and yes, Jokić scored 41 points. With Murray limited and the rhythm disrupted, the offensive efficiency of Denver’s starting lineup dropped from 118.2 points per 100 possessions in Game 1 to just 100 flats in Game 2. At a point in the season where every margin counts, that shift – that slow starts in the first and third quarters where the Nuggets got no stops or buckets – helped tilt the game in Miami’s favor just enough to take home field-field advantage.

The challenge Butler and the rest of the Heat now face? Murray continues to keep secret.

“I have to do that all the time, because I know that if I lead the way on that front, along with Bam, everyone has to follow that lead,” Butler said. “It’s all about doing your job, doing what’s asked of you on any given night and hoping, praying that you’ve done enough to win.”

In turn, the job for Murray and the Nuggets is to remain aggressive despite Butler’s coverage and rely on their teammates to find ways to make Miami pay for it.

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

But at some point Denver may need Murray fix it about him – to stare down one of the best perimeter defenders in the world and be bold enough not to blink; to find ways to throw him off, create more separation to cook, and get that other head to bite again.

“He’s obviously a little taller than me. I’m not going to tell you how to beat it,’ Murray said with a smile. “But I have my manners.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *