The Miami HEAT face the Denver Nuggets Friday night at Pepsi Center. The HEAT fell to the Nuggets 116-113 in their last meeting on April 2. Tip-off is set for 9:00 PM. Television coverage on FOX Sports Sun begins at 8:30 PM. You can also listen to the action live on 790 The Ticket.
1: With what we’ve seen so far, what can Miami hope to accomplish on this road trip?
Couper Moorhead: This is still the stage of the season – a stage that really should last the entire regular season for the most part – when finding ways to improve each game take precedence over the actual results. Yes, you need to win games to keep yourself in the playoff picture but the theory is that as long as you’re taking more steps forward than in reverse, the wins will follow. In that sense, the last two games have been nice steps forward with the HEAT looking more connected in a loss to the Timberwolves and then defeating the Chicago Bulls with defense two days later. Each of those games, and those prior, still had segments where Miami let off the gas a bit, so to speak. The more they can work to reduce those sequences where the turnovers mount or the offensive movement slows or the defense loses containment, the better off they’ll be. In the end, that’s what led to the second-half resurgence last season – even as the team lost, they improved. And if you can do that while beating strong Western Conference opponents, then it’s all the better.
As a side note, even though the HEAT sit No. 17 in defensive rating as compared to No. 5 last year, their actual rating is only 0.8 points per 100 lower. Not to say they can’t improve that number, and will likely have to in order to reach the elite tier, but league trends change the nature of the rankings each year.
Joe Beguiristain: It sounds simple, but it would be great if Miami could really hone in on its good habits and be a little more consistent on this road trip. While there aren’t many new faces on the roster, a lot of guys will tell you that every season is different. Just because the HEAT finished 30-11 last year, that doesn’t mean they’ll have a similar run right away in these first few months of the season. A run like that takes time, but Miami knows how to put in the work and build a more cohesive unit.
The good thing with a lengthy road trip like this is that the team will be spending a lot of time together off the court in addition to its usual routine. This is not to say that they don’t do that when they are at home, but road trips do help strengthen that camaraderie amongst the group. In turn, that can manifest itself into better communication as a whole.
Although there are plenty of tough games on this west-coast swing, Miami has steadily improved on both ends of the floor. Stalwarts Goran Dragić and Dion Waiters have had their moments, Hassan Whiteside looked good in his return from injury on Wednesday and Bam Adebayo has turned heads in the early going. Things are definitely looking up.
2: How is Denver different this year and how will that affect this matchup?
Couper: Denver’s first major move came at the trade deadline last season when they moved Jusuf Nurkić to Portland for Mason Plumlee, clearing up a bit of a frontcourt logjam so that Nikola Jokić could become the full-time starters. Then, during the offseason, they were able to sign All-Star Paul Millsap as a free agent.
It expectedly took, and is likely still taking, a little time for the team to acclimate to the arrival of such a formidable player – even if Millsap excels at doing just about everything – but even if they’re not operating at quite the level of efficiency as down the stretch last season when they were almost at a Golden State level of scoring, Denver remains a Top 10 offense after a 129-111 win over Toronto on Wednesday.
The Nuggets pose an interesting matchup for Hassan Whiteside given that Jokić spends so much time outside the paint acting as one of the team’s primary playmakers, but it’s Millsap who changes this matchup the most. Previously the Nuggets never quite matched up perfectly with Miami size-for-size across all positions, but now that they have Millsap they have a like-sized and styled player to match with James Johnson as well as more options for switching on defense.
Joe: Although the Nuggets as a whole haven’t changed that much since their last meeting with the HEAT on April 2, they did sign perennial All-Star Paul Millsap in free agency a week after trading away Danilo Gallinari in a three-team deal.
Millsap provides Denver with a smart, do-it-all player who can impact the game on both ends of the floor. In fact, the 32-year-old is holding the opposition to 39-of-113 shooting (34.5 percent), which is 11 percentage points less than their usual field goal percentage.
Pair his defensive prowess with the offensive wizardry of Nikola Jokić, who leads the Nuggets with 16.1 points, 11.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, and you have yourself one dangerous frontcourt.
3: With the HEAT possibly featuring a mostly healthy lineup Friday night, how might the rotation sort out?
Couper: We’re only able to guess here given that the lineups have changed so much, but the season opened with Kelly Olynyk starting alongside Hassan Whiteside. Since then James Johnson has been playing with the starters, and he was unavailable against Chicago when Whiteside returned, leading to Okaro White getting a start.
The fact that Spoelstra started White instead of going back to Olynyk in that game might be a clue, since he’ll often dip deeper into the rotation to replace a starter rather than disrupting the second unit. In other words, there might be something working with Olynyk and the bench worth keeping together right now, which would mean keeping Johnson with the starters. Nothing will be set in stone either way, but this remains an open question.
Joe: With James Johnson back after sitting out Wednesday night’s game against the Bulls with right knee tendinitis, I expect him to start at the four alongside Hassan Whiteside for the first time this season. The last time we saw Johnson and Whiteside on the court together was on opening night against the Magic when they went off in the fourth quarter and did everything they could to try and come away victorious. Simply put, their chemistry is something that you just can’t teach.
Of course, Kelly Olynyk is also a possibility at the four, but he’s been stellar coming off the bench for Miami. At the end of the day though, anything could happen. Erik Spoelstra always has a little something up his sleeve when it comes to lineups, and he likes to strategically put his guys in certain places based on matchups. We’ll see how it all plays out.
April 2 – Nuggets at HEAT
Nov. 30 – HEAT at Nuggets
- The HEAT are 3-4, while the Nuggets enter the contest at 4-4.
- This is the first game of Miami’s season-long road trip, which spans six games over ten days.
- Goran Dragić leads the HEAT in scoring at 19.9 points per game.
- Nikola Jokić leads Denver in points (16.1), rebounds (11.9) and assists (5.0) per contest.
- HEAT Offense: 102.1 (20)
- HEAT Defense: 104.9 (17)
- Nuggets Offense: 106.3 (7)
- Nuggets Defense: 105.8 (22)