Aaron Gordon knew what he was getting into. After matching up with Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James in the first three rounds of the playoffs, Gordon was facing an entirely new challenge entering the Finals.
“Jimmy could be the most complete player out of those guys,” Gordon said in the lead-up to Game 1 of Nuggets-Heat.
The Nuggets didn’t hear much from “Playoff Jimmy” in their 104-93 Game 1 win. Gordon and Denver held Butler to just 13 points, his lowest total of the playoffs, on 6-14 shooting. Butler also didn’t attempt a free throw in Game 1. It’s the first time that’s happened all postseason.
“I thought he did a hell of a job taking on that challenge of guarding a guy like Jimmy Butler,” Michael Malone said of Gordon after Game 1. “But I felt as a group, a collective unit, I felt our guys did a hell of a job, as well.”
After watching back Butler’s Game 1 shot attempts, the Nuggets’ strategy when guarding him was clear. Denver wanted to force Butler into mid-range jumpers and keep him out of the paint. Butler is only shooting 41.1% from the mid-range in the playoffs and went 1-5 from that area of the floor in Game 1.
With Nikola Jokic playing in a deep drop when defending the pick-and-roll, Butler had wide-open mid-range jumpers all night. He mostly took the shots that the Nuggets wanted him to.
On this play, Gordon ices the Cody Zeller screen and forces Butler baseline. Denver will give up this shot all day.
Jokic sits back near the foul line on this Butler-Bam Adebayo action in the third quarter too. His positioning gives up the mid-ranger again, which Butler again takes amid an aggressive late contest from 6-foot-10 Michael Porter Jr.
On Saturday, Butler complemented Jokic’s defense.
“He moves his feet well,” Butler said of Jokic. “He’s constantly making guys make decisions whenever they get into the paint.”
“He’s a hellified defender.”
I’m not sure of the meaning of “hellified.” It’s definitely a compliment though.
Another aspect of Butler’s Game 1 that led to his quiet Finals opener? He just didn’t play all that aggressively. Butler only attempted 14 total shots, his fifth-fewest of the playoffs. Miami’s offense has excelled in the postseason when Butler has gotten to the rim too, but he only had one straight-line drive that resulted in a basket in Game 1.
It was this drive right by Porter in the first quarter.
Butler was asked at Heat practice on Saturday whether he played passive. He pushed back on that notion entirely.
“I played basketball the right way,” he said.
Butler is an unselfish player at heart. He loves to get his teammates involved and set others up. Butler had seven assists in Game 1 — he averaged 6.1 assists per game in the Eastern Conference Finals vs. Boston — and committed to continuing to play his brand of basketball.
But Butler did vow to play with more aggression in Sunday’s Game 2. Expect him to try and get to the rim more and settle for the mid-range jumpers that he willfully attempted in Game 1 less.
“I’m going to continue to play the right way,” Butler said. “I’m going to pass the ball to my shooters the way I have been playing the entire playoffs, the entire year. I think I’ve got to be more aggressive putting pressure on the rim. 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.”
Butler will also surely try and challenge Jokic at the rim more in Game 2. I bet he knows that he settled for these wide-open jumpers way too easily. Seven of Butler’s 13 field goal attempts in Game 1 came on two-point jump shots.
The Nuggets expect Butler to come out more aggressive too.
“I mean you’ve got to expect that from him,” said Christian Braun. “Obviously he’s a really talented player. Good scorer. He’s kind of willed their team to this point. So they’re a really good team and we expect them all to come out really aggressive.”
Butler didn’t think much of his underwhelming Game 1. His confidence never wavers and Butler believes he and the Heat will bounce back tonight. Butler put the Heat’s opening Finals loss behind him by spending some quality time with his daughter, who’s in Denver with him, over the last two days and playing Spades. On Saturday night, Butler went to an Escape Room in Denver.
“It’s not always about basketball. It will never always be about basketball,” said Butler, who sounded an awful lot like another superstar, the one in a Nuggets uniform who also keeps an optimal work-life balance. “That’s how I regroup.”
Denver is better equipped than ever to handle offensive engines like Butler in a playoff environment. Gordon can match Butler’s size and strength. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown and Braun can all make Butler work for his offense too. Michael Porter Jr.’s length also made an impact in that matchup. Porter played one of the better defensive games of his career in Game 1 and tallied two blocks, one of which came while guarding Butler in the first quarter.
“Yes, they do have some really good defenders,” said Butler. “But I’ve seen really good defenders before.”