This NBA Finals between the Heat and Nuggets promises to be full of tough, beautiful basketball.
Tip-off of Game 1 is tonight at 8:30 PM ET
The NBA Finals is finally here and this is the first time I'm rooting for both teams to win. Each team has been amazing to watch with Denver playing its poetic brand of hoop and Miami playing hard and tough. Denver has been good all year, while Miami was mediocre throughout the regular season...postseason is a different story. They've become giant killers. But who's got the edge in the Finals? Let's highlight a few things.
The Denver Nuggets practically snoozed their way through the playoffs and were able to rest between series...a lot. One loss to the T-Wolves, two to Phoenix, and a clean sweep of the Lakers. In the East, the Miami Heat earned an 8-seed by winning the play-in tournament. They proceeded to sucker punch the Milwaukee Bucks, which was a huge surprise to me. Then they handled the Knicks and were looking at a sweep of Boston until the C's made a valiant effort.
One team is well-rested and the other is fresh off an exhausting series. The Nuggets had 10 days off between their last game against the Lakers and Game 1 against the Heat. Mike Malone is worried about this, saying "For us, my biggest concern is the rhythm, but more importantly, conditioning." Sometimes too much rest takes you out of your flow, but I think Malone will have his guys ready for Game 1.
The Heat are tough and are led by arguably the best coach in the League right now. Erik Spoelstra gets the most out of his players. He doesn't have a lot of stars but has players starring in their roles. With great in-game adjustments and game-to-game adjustments, he is constantly disrupting the flow of the game with man-to-man and zones. He has put together winning strategies against two very talented teams (MIL, BOS) and one surging team (NYK). He will need to go deep into his book against Denver who has two big-time scorers in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. No one has been able to even slow down Jokic. Does Spo have something up his sleeve?
Miami has the better coach on the sidelines, but Denver has a mastermind on the court and I really can't see Bam Adebayo stopping the Joker for 48 minutes. Bam's foul trouble will be a problem and Nikola is a basketball savant, so you know he's going to put him in a coffin every single game.
Denver Offense vs. Miami Defense
It's beautiful to watch. Spearheaded by Jokic, who averaged a triple-double in the WCF (and the entire playoffs) and is the real MVP, NOT EMBIID! A+ ball movement, high IQ plays from Jokic and Murray, easy paint touches that force defenses to collapse, and an ability to expose switch defenses. But Miami will show zone, right?
Yes, Miami has played zone 15 percent of the time in the postseason and allowed .906 points per possession, which is tops in the playoffs. Denver has cooked zones this season, with 1.156 points per possession in the regular season and 1.385 in the postseason. The middle of the 2-3 zone is a soft spot for Miami and Jokic is going to park his ass in there and make high-level reads. He's 7 ft tall; he will not worry about the smaller Heat defenders as he dimes his teammates up. If he doesn't pass it because the Heat give him space, he will shoot. The man is a weapon.
For the playoffs, the Nuggets have six guys in double-digits. This is the most efficient offense in the League and it will be a hell of a task for Miami to slow it down. I sound like a Jokic fanboy, maybe I am, but his right-hand man Murray is a star and has been shooting lights-out. Miami is athletic and will be throwing bodies at him all series long to disrupt and pester the guard.
The Heat will be scheming to put Jokic in high screen pick and roll situations and hopefully tire him out. His effectiveness and efficiency diminish in the 2nd and 4th quarters; he's able to rest at halftime and obviously before the first quarter starts. Performance weakens as stamina depletes. This might be the key to success for Miami.
Next, we have the quadfecta of "undrafted players" who should stop being labeled as such because they've carved out a spot in the NBA for themselves. Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, and Lord Basketball Caleb Martin have been playing incredibly well as a group. And they might eventually get Tyler Herro back. These boys will continue to penetrate and hit open threes. Will the scalding hot shooting percentages persist? I don't think so. I think Boston was easily exposed by Miami and the same won't happen with Denver.
Finally, Playoff Jimmy, aka Jimmy 'Freakin' Butler, will do everything to make his team win. He's been an absolute savage in the playoffs and, if it's possible, he will turn it up even more in the Finals. He might not be the most skilled player on the court, but he plays his balls off, he's tough to guard at close-range and mid-range, and his 3-ball goes up a few percentage points in the postseason. The willpower this man has is unmatched, but will it be enough?
My brain is saying Denver. The Nuggets have looked too dominant this year. It's been three years in the making for them with multiple key injuries holding them back over the last few seasons. Now they're all healthy and look like a scary, almost unbeatable team. But the energy, intensity, and heart that the Heat play with is something to behold. They've proved me wrong multiple times these playoffs and I wouldn't be surprised if they do it again.
With two close regular season games between them, both of which Denver won, I'm going to say Nuggets in 6. Let's kick back and enjoy the Finals!