The 2023 NBA Finals are finally here with the number one seed out west, Denver Nuggets taking on the eighth seed and play-in team, Miami Heat. Both teams have had very different seasons and journeys to the NBA Finals. For Denver they’ve been dominant all season, retaining the top seed in their conference for the majority of the NBA season even though they’ve been consistently overlooked. Miami on the other hand, has been a Cinderella story in the playoffs, making the Finals after losing their first play-in game to the Atlanta Hawks and then trailing the Chicago Bulls in their second play-in game with under four minutes remaining. Even after nearly missing the playoffs because of play-in-game losses, Miami stands tall. The Nuggets and two-time MVP Nikola Jokic are looking to capture the franchise’s first NBA title. While Miami and Jimmy Butler are seeking the fourth championship for Miami’s organization and the chance to become the first eight-seed to win the NBA Finals. Although Denver has been off the court for over 10 days, they have great momentum after a commanding 4-0 sweep over the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Miami comes in riding a hot streak of their own though, as they dismantled the Celtics in game seven at TD Garden, after originally leading the Eastern Conference Finals 3-0. With the Finals beginning shortly, here are a few keys to the series and my prediction for the next NBA Champion and Finals MVP.
Denver Nuggets vs. Miami Heat
1) Can the Heat somehow slow down Nikola Jokic?
In the playoffs, Nikola Jokic has shown why he’s arguably the best player in the world right now and probably should have won his third straight MVP this year. In the postseason, Jokic is averaging a triple-double and has recorded eight triple-doubles which is an NBA record. Jokic is such a nightmare to defend because he truly can do it all. He can score from the high and low post, the midrange areas on the floor, and knock down the three-ball while open or with defenders draped all over him. Jokic is extremely difficult to keep off the glass on the offensive end as well, averaging 4.9 second-chance points per game in the playoffs (NBA.com). He doesn’t ‘wow’ you with his athleticism or quickness, but his patience within the offense, ability to control the game at his pace, and touch have been impossible to stop for opposing defenses. Furthermore, the entire Nuggets' offense runs through their superstar big man. His passing ability is jaw-dropping, leading to his 10.3 assists per game average in the playoffs. If the All-Star Center isn’t defeating you with his scoring, then he’s likely shredding your defense with timely passes to his teammates for open looks all over the floor. Or, he could even do both at once. The Serbian star is especially dangerous when running the two-man game with his star counterpart, Jamal Murray. Miami will be faced with the near-impossible task of trying to slow down Nikola Jokic, something that players like Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James have been unable to do. It’ll be interesting to see the Heat’s strategy for Jokic, but I expect that Bam Adebayo will be the main defender as Miami doesn’t give a lot of minutes to their other bigs. I also suspect that the Heat will send plenty of double-teams to Jokic if he gets the ball in the post or is the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations. If Adebayo gets into foul trouble against Denver then Miami will be challenged even more in the individual matchup and likely won’t be able to overcome the dominance of “The Joker.”
2) Will the role players for Miami continue to shine on the biggest stage?
Miami’s best players have shined as “Playoff” Jimmy Butler has been in full effect and Bam Adebayo has also led the way for the Heat. The Heat has been without key players Tyler Herro and Victor Oladpio for nearly the entirety of the playoffs, but Coach Spoelstra’s team has gotten tons of production from their role players, many of whom are former undrafted prospects. If you’ve kept up with Miami and their playoff run, then you’ve heard the story of “the undrafteds” probably over 100 times. Players like Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, and ECF hero Caleb Martin have been huge for the Heat. Caleb Martin in particular has played like an All-Star and was one vote away from winning MVP of the Eastern Conference Finals, as the Celtics had no answer for him. Martin averaged 19.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game against Boston in the ECF. Gabe Vincent was stellar in the series as well, serving as the secondary ball-handler after Jimmy Butler and averaging just under 16 points per game (15.8). Strus and Robinson have knocked down timely threes and helped bolster the team’s three-point shooting which was mediocre in the regular season. Their movement off the ball has also helped Miami’s offense space the floor and has kept opposing teams chasing the action. Although Herro will likely return in game three of the Finals, the role players for the Heat will need to continue to explode in the first two games and throughout the series if the Heat are going to be victorious. This will be the ultimate test for the Heat’s role players who are on the biggest stage in basketball. The series will come down to them either continuing to excel or shying away from the moment.
3) How will Denver attack Miami’s zone defense?
Not many teams utilize zone defense much in today’s game and close to none use zone in the playoffs, except for the Heat. Erik Spoelstra and his team have gone to the zone defense more than any other team this season (ESPN) and it’s been very effective. The Heat’s zone gave the top-seeded Bucks and the Celtics issues in both series’ as Boston shot 17.4% from three-point range against zone defenses in the Eastern Conference Finals (ESPN). Denver will need to find ways to break down the defense for easy looks when Miami eventually turns to the zone. One way the Nuggets can defeat the Heat’s zone strategy is to knock down shots from the outside, something they’ve excelled at in the playoffs. Denver has shot 38.6% from beyond the arc in these playoffs, second in the league behind their Finals opponent Miami. If the Nuggets continue to shoot at this rate–or better–they’ll be able to create openings in the zone to lead to easy points in the paint or force the Heat to switch back to man defense. Michael Malone and his team also could look to get the ball into the high-post to Jokic, Aaron Gordon, or even Michael Porter Jr. The Nuggets have enough players with a combination of passing and shooting ability to go along with their size that they could use multiple different options at the high post. Placing their star Nikola Jokic in the middle of the zone would undoubtedly be an advantage for the Nuggets. Jokic would have the time and space to find the next opening, get into the paint for quality looks, or shoot over defenders in the midrange. The possibility of having Aaron Gordon move around the rim and short corner for quick dump-offs or lobs to the rim adds another advantage for the Nuggets on offense as well. Whichever way they choose to attack, it’ll be interesting to see the game plan for Malone and his team.
Predictions: Who wins the series, and who walks away as the Finals MVP?
Denver’s explosive offense and depth have overwhelmed some of the league’s best teams and the NBA’s best stars. The Nuggets are the most complete team in the NBA and get production from so many different players, even if their two leaders are struggling. The size and depth advantage the Nuggets have over the Heat makes me lean more toward the favorites in the series. But the strongest convincing factor is the unstoppable force that is Nikola Jokic. No team has had an answer for him all season and I don’t think Bam Adebayo and company will have one either. If Miami is going to have a legitimate chance at winning this series they’re going to have to shoot lights-out from the three-point line and force Jokic to beat them by himself rather than allowing him to get everyone involved. The Heat are also going to have to be able to play physically against Jokic without getting in foul trouble, once again a huge task revolving around Adebayo. Offensively, if the Heat are unable to slow down the offense of the Nuggets, then they’ll have to match their scoring, which nobody has managed to do yet in the playoffs. Another important note; Denver is undefeated at home in the playoffs (8-0) and they have home-court advantage in the altitude that teams have struggled with. Ultimately, I think Denver has too much firepower and talent for Miami to handle. I don’t think the Heat’s role players will continue to shoot and perform at the level they have been and that the Nuggets will hound them defensively. As stated, I believe that the biggest factor in this series is Nikola Jokic; I feel strongly that he will lead the way for Denver as he has and will average a triple-double once again. Miami’s miraculous run from play-in team to champions falls just short, despite incredible performances from Jimmy Butler.
Denver wins the NBA Finals in five games to capture their first NBA Championship in franchise history, and Nikola Jokic wins MVP of the NBA Finals.
*All stats were received from NBA.com and ESPN'S stats & info. department