Denver Nuggets preparing to slow playoff Jimmy Butler, their toughest task yet

May 30, 2023, 3:55 PM | Updated: May 31, 2023, 6:33 am

Jimmy Butler...

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

DENVER—The Denver Nuggets think their toughest task is ahead of them, and not just in this year’s playoffs—in life.

Eighth-year Nuggets head coach Michael Malone has led Denver to the NBA Finals for the first-time ever and they’re set to face off against the Miami Heat, who may have the best player they’ve matched up against in this year’s postseason.

“It’s gonna be the hardest thing that we’ve ever done, which is the way it should be,” Malone said of the matchup. “But regarding the themes, obviously a couple of things jumped out to me… Jimmy (Butler) you gotta give him different looks and you cannot guard him with the same player or the same scheme over a game or over four quarters or a series and that’s going to be a challenge to give him different looks and keep him off the foul line. He’s third in the playoffs in free throw attempts per game.”

Butler has led the Heat to the NBA Finals for the second time in four years, and this time he’s scoring 28.5 points per game, grabbing seven rebounds a contest and throwing six assists a night. Already upping his numbers in the playoffs, in his last Finals he went above and beyond, forced to carry and injured Heat while averaging 26.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 9.8 helpers a game.

Nuggets power forward Aaron Gordon is likely to draw the assignment against the six-time All-Star all-encompassing forward.

“He’s been going crazy,” Gordon said of Butler ahead of the series. “I just want to make it as difficult as I possibly can for him all night long during the entire series and making sure everything is tough—make him work for everything.”

Last season Gordon was not only the Nuggets best defender but their best option on the perimeter, guarding players like Steph Curry and Dame Lillard. With the additions of Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Gordon has been able to focus more on wings and bigs, which he says he’s thankful for.

Still Gordon has drawn the Nuggets toughest assignment in each round, stifling sweet-shooting seven-footer Karl Anthony-Towns in the first series. Then it was Gordon who made Kevin Durant a less efficient version of himself, one of the game’s best scorers ever. Next, it was slowing the NBA’s all-time leading scorer LeBron James.

“Jimmy is a difficult cover for different reasons than guys I have guarded in the past like KD, LeBron and KAT, Jimmy does everything,” Gordon said. “He does all the intangible things. He gets out in transition, he gets offensive rebounds, he gets back doors, he can spin out—a lot of the game within the game as well as being really skilled. He’s difficult to cover and I’m going to do the best I can to guard him without fouling and just compete and that’s really what it comes down to.”

Over a very small sample size that encompasses the past three seasons, Butler has scored only 11.4 points per 100 plays when defended by Aaron Gordon, according to Second Spectrum, the Ringer noted on Tuesday. Butler is at 17.9 points or better against every other defender he’s faced with a minimum of 100 matchups. Jimmy’s effective field goal percentage dips to 26 percent when Gordon guards him, versus 35 percent or better against everyone else.

“When I look at Jimmy Butler, what separates him from most players is the drive the competitive spirit within him, relentless attack,” Malone said. “So I think what makes Jimmy hard to guard is we know he’s talented. He’s big, he’s strong. He can get to his spot on the court. He has the gift of drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. But he’s a big moment player. He’s not scared. He’s tough. He’s relentless. And he’s a warrior… it’s not just on Aaron Gordon. It’s on all five guys on the floor to try to slow him up and to give him different looks and we’ll be ready.”



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