With the NBA Finals matchup set, we’re diving into (and answering) the biggest questions looming over this matchup between the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets.
The Miami Heat nearly teetered into making the wrong kind of history but, instead, they beat the Boston Celtics in Game 7 to complete one of the most improbable runs to the Finals in NBA history. Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets, off since last Monday after sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers in the West finals, have finally learned their championship-round opponent.
In some ways, these teams are opposites. The No. 1 seed Nuggets, led by the two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, had the best record in the West and were very much expected to be here. The Heat, after an up-and-down regular season, needed a crucial fourth-quarter comeback against the Bulls in the play-in tournament to earn the No. 8 seed. They are just the second eighth seed in league history to make it this far, and the first in a non-lockout-shortened season.
In other ways, these teams are similar. Led two of the best players in the postseason, both teams take care of the ball, execute their game plans and don’t beat themselves. In that respect, maybe it shouldn’t be so much of a surprise that this is the Finals matchup. The Nuggets are the overwhelming favorites, but count the Heat out at your own risk.
Here are the five biggest questions that will determine the winner of the 2023 NBA Finals.
Can the Heat slow down Nikola Jokic in the NBA Finals?
Jokic has won his last six meetings against the Heat, dating back to Jan. 27, 2021. He averaged 22.2 points on 63.5 percent shooting, 12.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists in those games. In these playoffs, Jokic has been even more dominant, posting 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists. Should he lead the Nuggets to their first championship, he will have the crown as the NBA’s best player.
The Heat face the tall task of being the only team this postseason to slow him down. They also may be the team best equipped to do so. In the first round, Jokic made tartare of Rudy Gobert and the Timberwolves. By dominating the Suns, he led to coach Monty Williams’s dismissal and may have gotten Deandre Ayton traded this offseason. And while Anthony Davis is the sort of player made in a lab to stop Jokic, the two-time MVP out-smarted LA’s scheme en route to a sweep. The Heat have Bam Adebayo (perhaps the postseason’s best defender), Erik Spoelstra (easily the postseason’s best coach) and a bunch of tough MFers who can execute different coverages and will try to muck things up.
Jokic has bested Adebayo in their matchups this season, shooting 9 for 15 and recording 8 assists to zero turnovers in the two times they faced each other.
Adebayo will be Jokic’s primary defender in this series, but the Heat will throw multiple looks at Jokic to try to keep him guessing. The Heat toggle between schemes more quickly and effectively than any team in the league. They can switch everything on one possession, then drop into a full-court press and 2-3 zone on the next. This is how they limited stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum in the East.
The zone is a particularly important instrument. Miami is practiced, having played more zone than any team in recent NBA history over the course of this season. They have several variations but each one is designed to take away the paint and, more specifically, the openings for cuts and drives to the hoop. There is no stopping Jokic, but if the Heat’s zone can snuff out the ballet of backdoor cuts and passes Jokic wants to make, it would go a long way in limiting Denver’s high-powered offense.
Which team wins the 3-point battle?
Not to be over-simplistic, but the two teams that led the playoffs in 3-point shooting percentage are also the last two teams standing. The Heat are the postseason’s best shooting team from distance, making 39 percent of their 3s. The Nuggets are just a hair behind, having made 38.6 percent of their 3s.
In the conference finals, the Heat rode the arms of Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent and Duncan Robinson. For the Nuggets, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all shot better than 40 percent.
Both teams abide by a quality-over-quantity approach to 3-point shooting, with Miami attempting 33.6 per game and Denver 31.4 per game — 10th and 13th among the 16 playoff teams, respectively.
But they work to create quality shots by going through their offense. No two teams move without the ball better. Their conference finals foes, the Lakers and Celtics, were too willing to jack up shots early in the clock. The Nuggets and Heat, delivered body blows by stringing together runs of open 3-pointers through off-ball screens, timely cuts and pinpoint passing.
How much does Jimmy Butler have left in the tank?
Here are Butler’s stats before rolling his right ankle in the first game against the Knicks: 35.5 points on 58.5 percent shooting, 6.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
Here are his stats since (after missing Game 2 vs New York with the ankle injury): 24.3 points on 41.7 percent shooting, 7.1 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game.
Butler hasn’t been the same scorer since the injury, and he spent most of Game 7 in Boston hobbling on that ankle during breaks. In Game 6, he had just nine points through three quarters before grinding out 15 points to give Miami a chance in the fourth quarter.
Butler is clearly slowed by this ankle injury — he doesn’t have the same lift when driving to the rim — and is limited to picking his spots, usually at the end of games. He spends most of the game in a facilitating role, setting the table by puncturing the paint and kicking out for 3-pointers.
But even that takes quite a toll, and it’s fair to question how much more he can wring from his body in this final series.
What role players – sorry, “teammates” – can make a difference?
The star duos of Jokic and Murray and Butler and Adebayo will get most of the real estate on the posters but, make no mistake, these teams are here because of their depth.
Denver’s additions of Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown are paying off in spades. Caldwell-Pope, a prototype 3-and-D player with championship experience, has completed Denver’s backcourt. Brown, who can affectionately be described as a worm with a mustache, wiggles around screens and makes the most of the in-between areas of the court.
For the Heat, Martin has been a revelation. Against the Celtics, he was a two-way force, averaging 19.3 points on 60.2 percent shooting (48.9 percent on 3s), 6.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists to 1.0 turnovers while defending Tatum and Jaylen Brown. In other words, he was everything the Celtics needed Brown to be.
If Spoelstra keeps Martin in the starting lineup or opts to bring him back off the bench, with Kevin Love getting those starting minutes, is an open question. A smart argument can be made either way. But Martin has shown he can make an impact regardless of role or matchup. With Butler limited, Martin’s contributions on the wing are even more important.
Will Tyler Herro make his return?
Herro, sidelined since sustaining a fractured right hand in Miami’s playoff opener, is hopeful he can return at some point during the NBA Finals.
According to TNT’s Chris Haynes, Herro is targeting Game 3 in Miami for his return. That would be June 7, more than six weeks since Herro’s surgery. The Heat provided a minimum six-week timetable following Herro’s surgery.
Asked about the report on Monday night, Herro said, “There’s a little soreness in my hand still. But it’s all just post-surgery scar tissue and stuff like that, that I’m trying to work through right now. I would love to come back for the Finals, but we’ll see how my hand feels. It feels good.”
Herro was cleared to begin basketball activities, including shooting and dribbling, within the past week.
Getting Herro back could be an important addition for the Heat. Herro is among Miami’s best shooters and most complete shot creators. Against Denver’s playoff-leading offense, Herro would help the Heat keep up.
Now, would he reclaim his spot in the starting lineup? Probably not. The Heat have found a formula that works with Max Strus as the starting shooting guard. But if Herro can effectively reprise his sixth-man role, it would give Miami another impact player against a shallow Nuggets bench that runs only two or three deep.
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