NBA Season Restart 2019-20

Heat, Nuggets relying on All-Star centers to fuel playoff dreams

Suggestions that playing through your big man is a lost or forgotten art in today’s 3-point happy NBA doesn’t resonate in Miami or Denver.

How could it with the likes of Bam Adebayo serving as the conduit for the Heat’s resurgence this season and Nikola Jokic as the epicenter of all things for the Nuggets? Two super-skilled All-Star big men, each one of them the fulcrum for their team’s hopes of disrupting the order of things come playoff time.

It sounds like a script from a bygone era. But it’s very much a reality in this case.

Jokic, the craftiest passing big man in the league, was the first-team All-NBA center last season, the foundational player the Nuggets have crafted their team around. Adebayo, one of the favorites for the Most Improved Player Award, has turned into an All-Star in his third season while also blossoming into one of the best defensive players in the league.

Only four players in the league are averaging at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists this season. Adebayo, Jokic, reigning Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Indiana’s All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis. So it’s not hard to see why Adebayo and Jokic are the linchpins to the season restart for their teams on the Orlando campus.

The Heat occupy that space behind Milwaukee and around both Toronto and Boston in the Eastern Conference’s upper crust, while the Nuggets have been lurking in the shadows of the two Los Angeles powers in the West.

Saturday’s restart opener for both teams, a 125-105 Heat blowout win over a Nuggets team that played without three starters (Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton), offered an intriguing glimpse at the problems both Adebayo and Jokic can cause in future matchups against teams not nearly as skilled, talented or versatile at their position.

Adebayo finished with 22 points, nine rebounds and six assists, controlling the action inside on both ends while the Heat shot nearly 45 percent (13-for-29) from beyond the 3-point line and pulled away late.

His rise couldn’t have come at a better time for a Heat team in transition from the Dwyane Wade era. When Jimmy Butler chose Miami last summer in free agency (the deal ended up being a sign-and-trade with Philadelphia), he needed an All-Star counterpart if the Heat were going to be a factor in the revamped East.

It wasn’t clear until this season, Adebayo’s first as a full-time starter, that his game was as polished and effective on both ends. More than just a physical specimen with an extra gear, he showed off the ability to dribble the ball up the floor and initiate offensive sets if needed while also anchoring the Heat defense.

He’s yet another member of an increasingly impressive crop of players from the 2017 Draft class — including Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, John Collins, Jarrett Allen, OG Anunoby, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Dillon Brooks — who have already outplayed their draft slots.

That was on full display Saturday in his matchup with Jokic, another underhanded draft pick made good.

Jokic shot 7-for-16 from the floor and finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, six assists, a block and a steal in his first regular season game action in over four months.

But don’t let this one game fool you. The Nuggets weren’t at full strength and are still working young players into the rotation for the first time. Jokic is the generator that regularly powers the Nuggets’ top 10 offense, joining Giannis as one of only two players in the league to lead their teams in points, rebounds and assists.

The restart has provided even more weapons for Nuggets coach Mike Malone to work with in Michael Porter Jr., who started Saturday’s game, and rookie 7-footer Bol Bol.

If their development goes anything like Jokic’s did in his first four seasons in the Rocky Mountains, from second rounder to face of the franchise, this crew could be scary in the near future. The Nuggets can already deploy frontcourt size, length and athleticism — veterans Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, Jerami Grant and Noah Vonleh included — to match up favorably with any team in the league, including the vaunted Lakers and Clippers.

It’s the seasoning where the Nuggets come up a bit short. Jokic has only played 14 career playoff games, all last season in the Nuggets’ run to Game 7 of the conference semifinals (a game they lost on their home floor to Portland).

So just like with Adebayo, who has only played in five playoff games in his career, there is still much to show and prove.

But make no mistake: they are centerpieces for challengers, relics of an old style eager for the restart and whatever comes next.

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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