After a month and a half of playoff basketball, we’re down to two teams. Two teams who have carried that ‘underdog’ mentality throughout this post-season and on their way to the NBA Finals, where they now have a chance, on the biggest stage in professional basketball, to silence the doubters and skeptics.
The Denver Nuggets aren’t your prototypical underdog, however. As the #1 seed in the West through the majority of the regular season and with a 2x MVP at the helm of it all, there’s almost nothing about this team from an on-court perspective that screams dark horse. But that’s the mentality they’ve carried throughout these playoffs, with both their Head Coach Michael Malone, and their players at different times mentioning how little they’re discussed in the grander ecosphere of NBA dialogue. For a team with as much talent and as beautiful a brand of basketball, the Nuggets have carried a small-market, how-dare-they-forget-about-us chip on their shoulder and it has worked marvelously. They’ve lost a total of 3 games on their way to the franchise’s first-ever NBA Finals berth, dissecting teams with ease, proving that they might have just been under-discussed. Any mention that this team isn’t compelling or sexy enough has been completely and utterly silenced by the way they have absolutely dominated throughout the post-season.
On the other side, the Miami Heat have rightfully played the underdog throughout these playoffs. As the 8th seed, they’ve now defeated the two best records in the NBA and two of the best regular-season offenses on the way to their second NBA Finals appearances in 4 seasons. This Heat team is riddled with stories of counted-out, oft-forgotten players who have carved out careers for themselves by defying expectations. Jimmy Butler and Erik Spoelstra help this team have a mental chip on their shoulder but that underdog mentality permeates throughout the roster, from Kyle Lowry to Duncan Robinson to Kevin Love, Gabe Vincent, and near-ECMVP Caleb Martin — this Miami team has found contributions from every corner of their roster. They face maybe their toughest battle yet against this Nuggets team, which has a clear matchup advantage on the court from a number of different angles, and well, they hope that once again, they can prove their skeptics wrong.
Regardless, this is going to be fun, compelling, and good basketball. Both of these teams have earned the right to compete for the biggest prize in basketball.
The question remains how can either side carve out their own advantage in this series?
Let’s break it down through 6 main factors.
|OFF RATING||5th (116.8)||25th (112.3)|
|DEF RATING||15th (113.5)||9th (112.8)|
|NET RATING||6th (+3.3)||21st (-0.5)|
|POST ALL-STAR OFF RATING||17th (114.7)||16th (115.7)|
|POST ALL-STAR DEF RATING||15th (114.4)||22nd (117.1)|
|POST ALL-STAR NET RATING||16th (+0.4)||21st (-1.6)|
|TRUE-SHOOTING PERCENTAGE||3rd (60.1%)||21st (57.4%)|
|PACE||24th (98.74)||29th (96.76)|
|3-POINTERS MADE||18th (11.8)||17th (12)|
|3-POINT PERCENTAGE||4th (37.9%)||27th (34.4%)|
|TURNOVER PERCENTAGE||23rd (14.7%)||13th (13.8%)|
|FREE-THROW RATE||20th (0.259)||13th (0.270)|
|OFF RATING||1st (119.7)||5th (116.1)|
|DEF RATING||8th (111.7)||6th (111.5)|
|NET RATING||1st (+8)||2nd (4.6)|
|ASSIST PERCENTAGE||7th (59.5%)||10th (58.1%)|
|TURNOVER PERCENTAGE||1st (11.7%)||7th (13.3%)|
|PACE||9th (96.33)||11th (95.75)|
|3-POINTERS MADE||9th (12.1)||5th (13.1)|
|3-POINT PERCENTAGE||2nd (38.6)||1st (39%)|
|OFFENSIVE REBOUND PERCENTAGE||5th (30.2%)||9th (27.9%)|
|TRUE-SHOOTING PERCENTAGE||1st (59.5%)||4th (58.3%)|
|FREE-THROW RATE||7th (0.269)||8th (0.243)|
|OPP. FREE-THROW RATE||10th (0.268)||13th (0.282)|
FACTOR #1: Defending Nikola Jokic
One could make an argument that the entire series will be decided on this one factor. It’s been the burning question for teams that have had to face the 2x MVP Nikola Jokic in this post-season, who is averaging an ungodly 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 10.3 assists through 15 games and doing so while shooting nearly 54% from the field and 47.4% from behind the arc. Safe to say, no one has had a good answer for how to stop the Joker, and in all likelihood, there is no stopping him. Teams can only hope to contain him just enough so that they can keep up offensively with the juggernaut Nuggets.
From a matchup perspective, right away, we can see that the Heat aren’t prepared (personnel-wise) to deal with this problem. The Celtics would have at least had the big bodies of Al Horford, Robert Williams, and Grant Williams to throw out Jokic’s way but Miami lacks in the size department. Outside of Bam Adebayo, who will likely be the primary defender on the Joker, Miami doesn’t have other big, imposing bodies to throw out against the 7-foot mammoth of a man.
And as far as the Bam matchup, well, it’s been one that Jokic has liked in the regular season. The Joker has averaged 22 points, 11.6 rebounds and nearly 7 assists a night through 12 career games against the Heat big man, and since Jimmy Butler joined the team in 2019, Miami has beat Denver just once through 8 regular season contests.
In short: it’s been tough.
But with this Heat team, especially with how they’ve looked in the post-season, it’s hard to take any regular season data as an argument point. And Miami’s lead tactician Erik Spoelstra has been incredibly creative with the ways he has stopped teams in the post-season — albeit not against a player with Jokic’s skillset. Regardless, expect Spo to have some tricks up his sleeve in these Finals.
But I watched the Heat-Nuggets game from February of this season to try and get an idea of what we might see. While the game was missing Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, and Tyler Herro, I think we’ll be seeing a lot of the same principles from Miami defensively when it comes to guarding Jokic.
Bam is an exceptional positional defender who isn’t going to fall for any of Jokic’s fakes, twists, and turns. But I’m not sure that’ll matter much just because of how much bigger Jokic is.
1-on-1, he’s able to just shoot right over the top of Bam’s outstretched arm in the post.
So the Heat will have to get creative. And they tried to in this game, primarily trying to front him in the post to put pressure on the ballhandler to throw a pass over the top of a defender.
They had some success with that, forcing the Nuggets to make tough post-entry passes and causing a lot of turnovers.
But even then, Jokic is just too versatile and too crafty of a big to have that bother him for too long.
Once the entry pass is made successfully into the post, Jokic’s all-time level decision-making helps him react to the defense sending help on a dime. If that backside defender pops over to try and get a steal, Jokic can use the added attention to find a cutter or the low-man open in the dunker spot.
But this is really only one aspect of Jokic’s game. What makes him so unstoppable is that he can also patrol the perimeter, or the high-block and create open shots for his teammates from there, making him the ultimate zone-buster.
Conventional wisdom says that the Heat will throw out multiple different coverages at Jokic and the Nuggets. They’ll front him in the post, they will send hard double teams and hope that their perimeter defense can rotate over quickly enough and they’ll probably deploy Martin, Butler, and maybe even Haywood Highsmith to be the primary defenders on Jokic, allowing Bam to be more of an off-ball rover on defense.
Any Nuggets fan reading this is probably saying “Yeah, been there, done that — it hasn’t worked” and you’d be right. The Suns tried it. The Lakers tried it by throwing Rui Hachimura and LeBron James on Jokic and having the shot-blocking giant Anthony Davis serve as the helper — and it just didn’t work.
But the Heat might be able to do a better job than the Lakers did. For starters, the Heat have better perimeter defenders in Vincent, Lowry, Butler, Martin, Highsmith, and even Adebayo, who can all rotate over on a string. They’ve been the most malleable and versatile defense in the postseason. They stopped the Knicks’ high-octane offense with a healthy dose of nail help from Butler and crew to make it harder on Jalen Brunson in isolations. They were excellent at running the Celtics off of the 3-point line in the ECF and taking away that team’s most dominant offensive quality.
The Heat have been able to attack every team’s offensive weaknesses and make it a pressure point in every series they’ve played so far.
The truth is, the Nuggets don’t have any offensive weaknesses. Jokic is going to be a matchup problem for Miami all series. We can say all of this and still… it might not matter.
But the goal for Miami shouldn’t be to stop the Nuggets, only to make things more difficult for them. To muck things up, if you will. If they can force Denver to become turnover-prone, they can also get out in transition and fuel their offense that way.
FACTOR #2: How They Guard Jamal Murray
What is equally as challenging of a task is how the Heat decide to make things difficult on Jamal Murray. Murray has been lights out throughout this post-season and has been the exact release valve and pressure-cooker scorer that this Nuggets team has wanted him to be in the past. The 2-man game with Nikola Jokic is going to be very taxing to defend and that’s because of Murray’s own explosiveness.
The Heat have some things that can make it difficult on Murray, though. First and foremost, I expect them to throw a ton of ball pressure at Murray and pick him up full-court. If anything, it’ll help eat up some of the shot clock and force the Nuggets to play faster in a half-court setting, which could cause turnovers and that’s what Miami wants to do. At best, they cause turnovers and at worst, they can force Denver to have to play faster and faster means more mistakes.
I think Miami will also be comfortable with Murray trying to go 1-on-1 with some of its perimeter defenders, including Butler, Martin, Vincent, and even Bam. They’ll dig down on drives, force him into tons of help and also force him to be the creator on offense.
If the Heat can do that defensively, they can turn the tides in their favor.
They’ll be comfortable switching these ball-screen actions and living with the consequences.
Of course, guarding Murray in the Nuggets system is a whole different animal from guarding the iso-heavy Knicks with Brunson at the helm — but it is something.
Murray has gone scorched earth, and again, he has the ability to do that, but if you’ve forced the issue and made him become the primary guy for Denver, you’ve won half the battle.
I thought the Lakers, at times, did a great job of doing that, forcing him to play 1-on-1 at the top of the arc and making him take tough shots. It’s just that he was making them all.
Obviously, that’s easier said than done. Murray is a tremendous mover off of the ball and the pet play actions with Jokic are a headache to defend.
Miami is better equipped to deal with these. They can flat-out switch these actions if they’d like to, but they also have guys like Vincent, Lowry, Butler, and Martin who will fight tooth-and-nail over screens to contest a shot.
The other, maybe more prevalent defensive question for the Heat is: How aggressive will they actually be?
We saw against the Celtics that they were not afraid to throw out that zone defense, and they weren’t afraid to overhelp on drives in order to cause turnovers. They had a goal of running the Celtics off of the 3-point line and it worked.
They used Boston’s own over-reliance on the 3-point shot against them.
In this play, the Heat zone forces the Celtics to find Smart in the corner fairly open for a 3. Now, Smart was a 34% 3-point shooter on the season, so that’s a shot you’ll live with. But what happens when it’s Porter Jr in the corner? Or KCP?
Inevitably, with this ultra-aggressive style, you’re still going to give up good looks to good shooters, but the job isn’t done there. The Heat have done an excellent job of committing to contest shots, chasing shooters off of the line, and flying by shots, just to make the shooter hesitate for an extra milli-second.
There’s a commitment level that’s required for this. Watch where Caleb Martin races from just to fly by Brown’s 3-point attempt.
It might not feel like a lot, but it makes a world of a difference knowing that the defense is going to stay committed to contesting a shot.
And that could begin to wear on Denver’s shooters. How much? Well, that’s still TBD.
FACTOR #3: Miami’s Shooting
People have been waiting for the Heat to regress in the playoffs from behind the arc and they just… haven’t.
Duncan Robinson is hitting on nearly 45% of his threes. Caleb Martin is knowing down 44% of his. Both Gabe Vincent and Max Strus, who lead the team in 3-point attempts throughout these playoffs are shooting 39% and 36% respectively from behind the arc. Kyle Lowry is hitting on 35% of his. Even Butler, not known for his 3-point repertoire is hitting on a healthy 35%.
This is who the Heat just are at this point. They’ve always had the 3-point shooting talent and their struggles in the regular season from behind the line might just be more indicative of not getting good shots than anything else.
A staple of the Heat’s offense in the half-court has been these DHO actions or Chicago actions that involve Bam and one of Robinson, Vincent, Strus, or even Martin and that’s what has helped create tons of good looks for them in the post-season.
The Heat shot 50% from 3 in Game 7 in Boston and a lot of those makes were off of actions that involved Bam.
The onus will be on Bam even more in this series coming up to find open shots for his guys. There will be a lot of situations where Bam will have a 4-on-3 advantage and have to make a pass in the short roll to a shooter.
That starts, however, with Bam himself looking to be a threat as a scorer on offense. This leads me to my next point.
FACTOR #4: Miami Pressuring Jokic
The Nuggets just got through facing an opponent that lived in the paint in the Lakers. Between Anthony Davis and LeBron James, the Lakers tried to make a living near the basket — and they were successful for the most part. With the Heat, it’s much of the same battle. While Miami doesn’t get to the rim as frequently as the Lakers do, how much they can put pressure on the rim, and as a result, force Jokic to work on the defensive end, will be a huge factor.
That starts with Adebayo, in my opinion.
In these 2-man actions with a guard, putting pressure on Jokic to have to guard you is going to be important.
Jokic had his work cut out for him trying to contain Davis in the WCF. Adebayo will have to keep him honest in post-up situations as well. Being an offensive threat, and looking to score — these are things that have waned with Adebayo before. You can not have that in this series.
It’s a two-way street, though. Those 2-man actions with a Heat guard and Adebayo are the best pressure point to try and make Jokic work on defense. Robinson attacking the basket here opens up an easy look for Bam.
The other side of this is Jimmy Butler.
The Heat are probably going to get Jokic involved in a lot of high pick-n-roll actions and try to get Jimmy to attack Jokic on the go, hoping to either get the Nuggets’ big man into foul trouble or to look to score.
But there’s a world where Jimmy can put pressure on the defense off the ball as well, as a screener and cutter.
Like this play here.
In this play, Jimmy sets the initial ball screen, gets Murray into deep post-position, and then a second action between Robinson and Bam creates an easy look for Adebayo on the opposite corner.
Getting Jimmy moving off of the ball, and using his gravity in that way can open up a lot for his teammates, and also open up a new wrinkle in the Heat offense that could be harder for the Nuggets to stop.
If you’d like to learn more about this specific aspect, Brady Hawk did a great job of detailing it in this thread.
FACTOR #5: Jimmy Butler vs Aaron Gordon
In all likelihood, Gordon is going to get the primary assignment to guard Butler. After all, Jimmy is just too strong for most guards, especially Murray and KCP, who he will try to hunt on mismatches. He’s too quick for slower-footed bigs and that will be an issue against Porter Jr or even Jokic, as I mentioned above. Gordon is sort of the perfect in-between because he frame to withstand Butler’s strength, the size to contest his shots, and the foot speed to keep up with him.
Gordon didn’t play in one of their 2 matchups this regular season but he’s had to defend Butler on many nights back when he was a part of the Orlando Magic.
It’s a small sample size but through 3 seasons, Butler has scored only 11.4 points per 100 plays when defended by Aaron Gordon according to Second Spectrum data provided to The Ringer. Butler is at 17.8 points or better against every other defender he’s faced with a minimum of 100 matchups.
I mean just look at what Gordon did against Butler defensively when he was in Orlando.
This is a matchup that the Nuggets should feel comfortable with. And that’s why it’s so much more crucial that the 4th factor I mentioned is something the Heat deploy. By playing Jimmy off-ball more, using him as a screener and cutter, you are creating easier looks for him, rather than forcing him to have to take Gordon 1-on-1.
FACTOR #6: 2 Days In Between Games
There are some tactical elements that are going to be crucial in this series, no doubt. But one of the more surface-level things that can have an impact on this series is the fact that there are 2 days off between each game, as opposed to the 1 day off between games in the Conference Finals.
By the end of the Eastern Conference Finals, Butler looked worn out. His layups were off the mark, and his burst wasn’t there anymore. 2 days in-between games are going to help.
I think the same applies to the older guys on the Heat roster Kevin Love and Kyle Lowry, who have looked much better in these playoffs when there have been multiple days off in-between games.
Lowry has been super important for this Heat team as a facilitator and creator off of the bench. He was instrumental for Miami in Game 7 versus Boston. Love has had great moments throughout these playoffs, especially against the Knicks, and his floor spacing and rebounding can be a huge factor against Denver.
That being said, the Nuggets also have 2 days off in-between games. They will also be more well-rested coming into the Finals as well. So take this as you will.
But I do think it helps the Heat more, given the age of their group.
PREDICTION: Nuggets In 6
The advantage is with the Nuggets but this is going to be a close series. Anybody who is convincing themselves it won’t be hasn’t watched the Heat throughout these playoffs. They are a resilient group, led by the best tactician in the game of basketball and they will figure out ways to make life difficult for the Nuggets. Jimmy Buckets has found ways to will this Heat team to victories in a number of different playoff runs and has done so in the NBA Finals for this ball club in the past. This team isn’t just going to mail it in. And while they probably don’t have enough to stick with Denver offensively, I think they’ll put up an incredibly good fight.
Both of these teams have had great seasons. The Heat have miraculously found themselves in a position that I could not have foreseen after watching them all season and regardless of the outcome of this series, they should walk away with their heads held high.
Also — I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up winning this series. I predicted they’d lose against the Bucks, the Knicks, and then the Celtics and they shattered my expectations every single time.
Maybe they do the same in the Finals.