2023 NBA Finals

2023 NBA Finals preview: Nuggets, Heat take unique paths to Finals stage

The story of a No. 1 seed facing a Play-In survivor doesn't do justice to the star talent taking the Finals stage.

Shaq, Charles, Kenny and EJ share their thoughts on the Nuggets-Heat matchup in the 2023 NBA Finals.

We have a top seed vs. an AT&T Play-In Tournament winner for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. What a contrast, at least according to the standings, is this matchup of Nuggets vs. Heat. None of that really matters anymore, not this deep into the postseason. In the NBA Finals, it’s all about shot-making, defensive stands and the courage needed to become a champion. And based on what we’ve seen from these two teams, both belong on the June stage.

That’s because the Nuggets and Heat just went through the fire. Denver had to cope with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker in the Western Conference semifinals, then LeBron James and Anthony Davis for the West crown.

And Miami? After surviving the Play-In (where Miami actually trailed the Chicago Bulls late in the fourth quarter), the Heat chopped down a pair of sequoias in the Bucks and Celtics, stunning the league each time. Best of all those matchups will bring plenty of confidence because of the experiences.

Maybe it’s not the Finals matchup some folks wanted, but it could become the Finals matchup we deserve. What’s wonderful about Nuggets-Heat is that either Nikola Jokic or Jimmy Butler will leave with a ring. There’s beauty to behold in the chase for the first championship, especially because there’s no guarantee either player will get this close again.

In the process of this best-of-seven series, important questions will be asked and answered.

Are there more triple-doubles coming from Jokic? Can Bam Adebayo do much, or anything, to prevent them? Does the furnace inside Butler keep raging enough for him to elevate his game even higher? Will Miami see a return at some point from Tyler Herro, out since the first game of the playoffs with a hand injury but cleared to resume basketball activities in advance of the Finals? Will Denver’s shooting efficiency, 49% from the floor and 38% from deep in the 2023 playoffs, stay scorching and test Miami’s smart defense?

While we ponder that, let’s pause and salute 78-year-old Heat bossman Pat Riley for yet another trip to the finish line. As a player, assistant coach, coach and executive, Riley has reached the NBA Finals 19 times. That means, since 1972, when he first made it to the Finals (as a reserve player on the Lakers and before it was actually called the NBA Finals) until now, Riley has made an appearance roughly once every 2 1/2 years on average.

Of course, that’s 19 more Finals trips than the Nuggets made in their entire existence, until now.

So it’s Nuggets-Heat, a peculiar matchup of contrasting styles and histories and individual stars. In its own way, this series should be entertaining and creative. Historic and memorable? That’ll be decided by Jokic and Butler.

Regular-season Results

Dec. 30: Nuggets 124, Heat 119

Feb.13: Nuggets 112, Heat 108

3 Things To Watch

Miami has somehow found a way to win in every round so far. Denver will be its biggest test yet - literally.

Aaron Gordon vs. Jimmy Butler. The Nuggets are in a weird spot with Butler. He’s the obvious player of great concern, but might be a tough matchup. Butler is too strong for most guards to handle and too quick for most forwards. More than likely, Denver will turn once again to Gordon for this tricky assignment, and for good reason. Gordon is Denver’s ace defensive player and in this instance he brings size (6-foot-8) and a decent degree of fast twitch to the job. In each series, he has been at a height disadvantage (facing 7-footer Karl-Anthony Towns in the first round and Durant and LeBron James in successive rounds), yet he did reasonably well against them all. Also, Butler doesn’t shoot 3-pointers very often, which actually helps Gordon as he won’t need to stretch his defensive range. Of course, what Butler lacks in distance shooting is made up for in mid-range and sheer relentlessness. The best advice for Gordon? Refrain from any urge to trash talk Butler. This important message was relayed by Boston, courtesy of Grant Williams.

Big step for the undrafteds. The Heat are winning with a collection of scrappy, undrafted players. Perhaps you heard this development about, oh, a few million times? Gabe Vincent, Duncan Robinson and Max Strus are carrying the flag proudly for ignored players everywhere. It’s a great story at this level, how these players are not only getting plenty of burn and not only making the most of it, but outplaying other, more decorated players. Two things to keep in mind here: These players are already established in the league now and so the notion of them being Cinderellas is somewhat outdated. Even so, they have a bit more to prove. That sounds contradictory, but they’re about to take a stroll on the biggest stage of their lives. Can they continue to defy basketball logic, still hunt for big shots keep making momentum-changing plays and refuse to blink at the brightest of lights? The NBA Finals has a way of stripping you to the core and revealing who you really are, and the championship series, in the past, proved too big for players with far more credentials. Miami is hoping these undrafted players bring that chip on their shoulder and refuse to awaken from the dream.

Jamal Murray, superstar turn? Murray craves universal acceptance for his game, which he believes deserves a bigger spotlight, and he’ll get the chance to hold all the flowers. All he needs to do is be the best player in this series, win a championship and capture the Finals MVP from Nikola Jokic. Is that too steep of a request? Not really. Murray is riding a massive roll right now (27.7 points per game in the postseason on 48-40-92 shooting splits) and is coming off a terrific West Finals where he was a problem for the Lakers. Murray, like most great players, is comfortable on any spot on the floor and can score multiple ways. His give-and-go chemistry with Jokic is fun to watch and allows Murray to play off the ball and roam free. If the Heat fail to prevent him from being unleashed, it could prove troublesome to Miami. Murray, as he showed in the 2023 playoffs, can go on a tear for an extended stretch. He’s not the most talented player in this series, but he can be the best.

X Factor

Erik Spoelstra, Heat. There are differing theories regarding the true worth of a coach on this level. Do they really make a massive difference? Can they impact the outcomes of a number of games? That’s hard to definitively quantify. It’s a players league and superstars decide championships. But almost everyone on planet basketball believes Spoelstra constantly puts his team in position to win, and that’s all a coach can do. He motivates and holds players — especially his stars — accountable. He’s unafraid to make lineup changes and quick to make adjustments (Kyle Lowry is backing up Vincent, and Robinson and his big contract, until recently, was buried on the bench). Spoelstra against almost any coach is unfair. He has risen that high in his profession, and it’s not a stretch to say he might be top-10 all-time. There will be no arguing that designation if he wins a championship, especially with this crew, which would be his first without James. Hard to believe, but LeBron once wanted Spoelstra out and Riley in. Riley knew what he had then … and especially knows it now.

Earlier this postseason, Erik Spoelstra's 101st playoff victory passed Larry Brown (100) for 5th all-time.

Number to Know

119.7 — The Nuggets have scored 119.7 points per 100 possessions over their 15 playoff games. That’s most efficient offense a team has had through three rounds of the playoffs in the last six years (since the Cavs scored 122.1 through three rounds in 2017).

They’ve done it against defenses that ranked 10th, seventh and 12th in the regular season. In the conference finals, Denver scored 15.8 more points per 100 possessions (122.3) than the L.A. Lakers had allowed through the first two rounds (106.5).

The Nuggets rank third in these playoffs in effective field goal percentage (55.9%). They’re also first in turnover rate, having committed just 11.7 per 100 possessions, down from 14.7 (23rd) in the regular season. Their assist/turnover ratio of 2.27 is the second best mark for a playoff team with at least 10 games played in the last 25 years. (The best mark (2.45) belongs to the 2019 Nuggets and the third best mark (2.22) belongs to the 2021 Nuggets.)

The Heat rank sixth defensively (111.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) in the playoffs, having faced two offenses (those of the Knicks and Celtics) than ranked in the top five in the regular season. The Heat themselves ranked third in the regular season in opponent turnover rate. In the playoffs, Jimmy Butler has 10 more steals (35) than anybody else.

But the Nuggets are a very different challenge, one that that just dispensed an elite defense in four games.

— John Schuhmann

The Pick

Jokic owns a pair of Kia MVP awards and, despite what his coach will tell you, plenty of respect from the basketball world. Best of all for the Nuggets, he remains laser focused on what he lacks: a championship. His level of play in this postseason is up in the clouds as “The Joker” is doing historic stuff for a center. His run through the last month is strikingly similar to what Giannis Antetokounmpo unleashed two years ago. Back then, Antetokounmpo also had bagged a pair of MVPs and wouldn’t be denied the Larry O’Brien in the 2021 NBA Finals. Both players are foreign-born, multi-skilled and hungry. It just seems destined for Jokic to grab the brass ring and for the Nuggets to sip champagne for the first time in franchise history. With all due respect to “Playoff Jimmy Butler,” the final chapter of 2023 is written in Serbian. Nuggets in 6.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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