The Western Conference’s top-seeded Denver Nuggets and the East’s eighth-seeded Miami Heat meet in the 2023 NBA Finals. The two teams have never met before in the playoffs. Here are three keys to the series.
How the hell do the Heat stop Nikola Jokić?
The two-time MVP has been by far the best performer in the playoffs across both conferences, averaging a 30-13-10 triple-double on 54/47/78 shooting splits in 38.9 minutes over 15 games for the Nuggets en route to the Finals. He made quick work in the West of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers, all of whom boasted more size in the frontcourt to defend the 6-foot-11, 284-pound Jokić.
None of those teams had Bam Adebayo, Miami’s powerful and pliable four-time All-Defensive center.
That hasn’t mattered in six meetings between the Nuggets and the Heat over the past three seasons. Jokić is averaging 22.2 points (63/42/80), 12.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists (against 1.5 turnovers) in 33.7 minutes per game against Miami during his three-year run as the league’s best regular-season player. Denver has outscored the Heat by 73 points in Jokić’s 202 minutes and won all six games by an average of 13.2 points.
Nor did the Lakers’ Anthony Davis matter in the Western Conference finals. He was the NBA’s most dominant defensive force through two rounds, and Jokić gave him a cool 28-15-12 on a nightly basis.
Adebayo is giving up two inches and 30 pounds to Jokić, and he is the biggest player by a wide margin of anyone who finished the Eastern Conference finals in Miami’s rotation. According to the NBA’s tracking data, Adebayo has defended Jokić for a total of 43:43 — roughly the same as the Serbian’s playing time in Denver’s close-out Game 4 against the Lakers — and Jokić has totaled 52 points on 57.5% shooting from the field (41.7 3P%) and 25 assists (against 6 turnovers) in those minutes, as the Nuggets have scored 117.2 points per 100 possessions (or the equivalent of one of the 10 greatest offenses in league history).
If those are Adebayo’s numbers against Jokić, what chance does backup center Cody Zeller have? The veteran’s minutes declined from 10 per game at the beginning of the conference finals to zero by the end. God forbid Max Strus, Kyle Lowry or Duncan Robinson get switched onto Jokić. Miami is no longer facing a 36-year-old Al Horford and the one-dimensional lob threat of Robert Williams III. Jokić is a generational talent.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will throw everything at Jokić, but the zone defense that gave Boston fits is less likely to disrupt the Nuggets center, whose size and transcendent playmaking ability make him the perfect weapon to park at the nail and pick it apart from the inside . Miami played more zone than any team ever in the regular season and has played three times as much zone as any other team in the playoffs, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. Except, Denver scored 1.21 points per possession against the zone this season, per The Ringer’s Zach Kram — 3 points better than their halfcourt offense throughout the year.
Miami can disguise coverages to confuse Jokić, but he is a basketball savant, and he has yet to find a defense he cannot figure out. Double him, and he finds the open man. This may be Spoelstra’s biggest challenge schematically since he faced the 2014 San Antonio Spurs, and he has learned a lot since. It will be fascinating to see how well Adebayo holds up on his own, what wrinkles Spoelstra might introduce to help him, what counters Nuggets coach Michael Malone will discover and how quickly Jokić responds.
How much gas does Miami still have in the tank?
The Nuggets enter Thursday’s Game 1 on nine days of rest, which raises rust and rhythm concerns, but the Heat will be 72 hours removed from completing an exceptionally emotional seven-game series against the rival Boston Celtics. They flew straight from coastal Boston to the altitude of Denver overnight on Monday.
It took five games to beat the Milwaukee Bucks and six to dispose of the New York Knicks, but taking down three higher seeds requires a monumental effort. Just ask Jimmy Butler, who exhausted himself stealing the first two games of the conference finals against the Celtics. Spoelstra rested him during a Game 5 that was slipping away from them, knowing the Heat needed at least one more vintage performance from the 33-year-old to close out the series. Butler still had no lift in Game 6, shooting 5-for-21 from the field, but found enough in the tank to mount the closest of comebacks and save some for 43 minutes of Game 7.
This is to say nothing of the 43 minutes Butler played to save Miami’s season in a second play-in tournament game, or his 46 minutes in an overtime closeout win over the Bucks, or the last five of the 43 minutes he played on a sprained ankle. ankle in Game 1 against the Knicks. Miami has played 20 postseason games in 50 days, including seven in a 13-day span last round, and Butler has played 750 minutes in 19 of them. In contrast, the Nuggets have played 15 games over that time, and Jokić has played 583 minutes.
Butler has played 40-plus minutes in 12 of those 19 postseason games, including 90 minutes over Games 6 and 7 of the conference finals. He is basically a cyborg, a competitor practically without peer. Only nine players have totaled more minutes than Butler’s 24,643 since 2012 (and 37-year-old Heat teammate Kyle Lowry is one of them). But at some point the overtaxing takes its toll. That may be in July. It may be now.
The Heat essentially trimmed down to a seven-man rotation by the end of their last series, save for a smattering of Haywood Highsmith. Butler, Adebayo and Caleb Martin played all but a handful of minutes in each game. Lowry and Robinson spelled Gabe Vincent and Strus, and Vincent was playing on a sore ankle that limited him to 5-of-19 shooting on 2-pointers and a negative rating over Games 6 and 7.
Miami may turn to Zeller and Kevin Love for frontcourt depth, but both were played off the floor against the Celtics. Tyler Herro, the 2022 Sixth Man of the Year, is expected to return at some point in this series. He has not played since breaking his shooting hand midway through Miami’s Game 1 win in the first round.
“There’s a little soreness in my hand, but it’s all just post-surgery scar tissue and stuff like that that I’m trying to work through right now,” Herro said after Game 7 of the conference finals. He was asked whether the report that he was targeting a Game 3 return in the Finals is accurate and said only it was a possibility.
Herro could provide offensive punch, especially as another pick-and-roll playmaker, but the Heat have not been disappointed depending on the two-way play of Vincent and Martin more often. Bringing back Herro midway through the Finals could create more rhythm and rust concerns than the Nuggets’ nine days off.
Then, there’s the altitude. The mile-high air is no joke. The Nuggets are 42-7 (.857 winning percentage) in Denver this season, including an 8-0 record in the playoffs. That is the best combined record in the league, and they are the only undefeated home team in the postseason, winning their games at Ball Arena by an average of 11.6 points per 100 possessions. No Miami team has won in Denver since November 2016.
“We play there once a year, so we don’t have much experience in the altitude,” said Herro. “We played in Mexico City this year, which was a higher altitude in Denver, I believe, but you can feel it. It’s an adjustment, for sure, but at this point our team is built for anything, and I can see us trying to steal one or two like we did [in Boston]. That’s what we do. We go into hostile environments and try to steal one.”
Games 1 have propelled the Heat to the Finals. They are 3-0 on the road in Games 1 during the playoffs, winning by an average of 9 points, reversing home-court advantage each time and reminding every team they have faced that — if they need to when they need to — they can silence the home crowd again. Which they have. They won three games in Boston, running their road record in the postseason to 6-4.
Miami will exhaust every ounce of effort to steal Game 1 again. If they cannot, whether it is the altitude or Denver’s own force of will, we must ask again: How much do the Heat have left? They might have an endless amount of fuel. They might have just enough for another series. And might have run out of gas.
Is Caleb Martin Miami’s third star?
Through the regular season, two play-in games and two rounds of the playoffs, we had 84 games of evidence about what kind of player Martin was. He averaged 9.6 points on 7.5 field-goal attempts per game and 47/36/80 shooting splits in those 84 games, a slight improvement from his four-year career average. We are not far removed from Martin totaling 6 points on 7 shots in two play-in tournament games.
Martin transformed into a star in the conference finals, averaging 19.3 points on 12.6 attempts per game and 60/49/88 splits. He elevated Miami’s offense from a 25th-rated unit (112.3 points per 100 possessions) to roughly the equivalent of Denver’s high-powered outfit during the regular season (116.6 points per 100). Martin’s scoring spiked to 21 points a game (64.8 FG%, 51.9 3P%) in the Heat’s four wins against Boston. He was so remarkable that he came within one vote of usurping Butler for Eastern Conference finals MVP.
That is unsustainable in the long run, but seven more games is not a long run.
“He meant everything to us,” said Vincent. “Caleb was a huge part of the success — 100%. And I think everyone knows it. Whether he got the trophy or not, everyone around the world has been watching not only the whole playoffs but this series knows the impact that he had, and he should be proud of it.”
If the Nuggets’ scouting department is worth its salt, they will not leave four or more feet between their closest defender and Martin on 44 of his 45 3-point attempts (98%) and 59 of his 88 total field-goal attempts (67 %), as the Celtics did, often inexplicably leaving him to double other, less dangerous threats.
“He’s been flying under the radar,” said Love, “but he’s not going to fly under the radar anymore.”
Anything short of that Martin makes Miami’s offense an issue against a Denver team that is blitzing opponents for 119.7 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs — 3.4 more than any other team.
Martin is not the only member of the Heat who has caught fire in the playoffs. They have evolved from the 27th-rated 3-point shooting team during the regular season (34.4%) to the NBA’s best in the playoffs (39%). Part of that is Strus and Robinson resurfacing at base level (38% on 11.4 combined 3-point attempts per game). And part of that is Martin and Vincent elevating beyond theirs (41.2% on 11.1 combined 3-point attempts per game — compared to their career averages of 34.7% on 7.1 attempts).
Regardless, it is pretty safe to describe Martin, Strus, Vincent, Robinson and Love as reliable shooters at this point, and you will probably only see three of them on the court together for any prolonged period. You can say the same about Denver’s Jokić, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, all of whom play together. Predict all you want about who will shoot better — Denver’s 3-point defense was better during the regular season (34.4% to Miami’s 36.7%) — but percentages go out the window when the ball is in the air, and the Heat’s ability to maintain their torrid pace will determine how long this series goes.