2023 NBA Finals

4 things to monitor heading into Game 5 of 2023 NBA Finals

Does Miami have another win's worth of resilience left in the tank? Or will Denver wrap up the NBA title in Game 5 at home?

Jared Greenberg joins NBA GameTime to share the latest developments from Denver ahead of Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

DENVER — We have officially reached the elimination portion of the NBA Finals. Will this be the end of the 2022-23 season, or the launch of an unlikely comeback?

Those questions will be answered before the midnight hour Monday when Game 5 (8:30 ET, ABC) comes to a conclusion. The Denver Nuggets are in perfect position to win their first championship: they’re at home, Nikola Jokic still hasn’t been contained and the confidence of the Nuggets is mile high.

The city is bracing for a special moment, a reason to celebrate, a time to unify. That’s how much these Nuggets mean to Denver — long considered a football town — as they try to cash in for the first time, up 3-1 in the series.

Still, it’s hard to beat a team three straight times. And close-out games in the Finals are always unpredictable and tricky. Desperate teams usually play without burden or pressure, since everyone has them on the golf course the next day, anyway. So perhaps the Heat, as a No. 8 seed, are built for this.

“We didn’t come this far to stop playing now,” said the Heat’s Jimmy Butler.

Here are four things to watch on Monday at Ball Arena, where the Larry O’Brien Trophy is safely stored in a room, where champagne is being chilled, where confetti will be placed in the ceiling — you know, just in case it’s a happy night for the home crowd.

1. Miami must lean on its history

Can Jimmy Butler and Heat keep their postseason alive as series moves back to Denver?

What’s next for a team when it appears there’s no where else to turn for help? Well, while NBA history is against the Heat — only the 2016 Cavs rallied from a 3-1 hole in the Finals — they should rely on their own, most recent history.

The resolve shown by this No. 8 seed might not be able to flip the Finals in its favor, but could still be enough to extend the series at least another game. And that’s all Miami aims to do Monday — push the series a bit longer and, in the process, invite the possibility that something could swing in its favor.

Just rewind the postseason tape and witness how often the Heat defied the odds. They trailed the Chicago Bulls with roughly three minutes left in their AT&T Play-In Tournament game … they found a way to topple the No. 1 seed in the East (well, Giannis Antetokounmpo was injured for 2 1/2 games for the Bucks, but still) … they braved the elements in Madison Square Garden and rejected the Knicks’ defense … and, finally, they won a Game 7 in Boston which really wasn’t ever in doubt.

“We have a very mentally tough team,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “We do believe in that. We have a big goal and, from our standpoint, nothing has changed. It is extremely challenging to accomplish that ultimate title. We have a very stubborn and defiant group, and I think it’s good to have a little bit of defiance from time to time.”

With Butler leading by example and by performance, the Heat have managed not just to survive, but thrive this post-season and make those who questioned their credentials look foolish for doing so. Therefore, what’s changed? Miami is down 3-1 and playing Monday in Denver. The Heat have been here before, and done that.

“Everybody is counting us out,” said Spoelstra. “We’re used to that.”

But it’ll take whatever’s left in the tank, such as better 3-point shooting, a smarter defense against the pick-and-roll, more help for Butler and Bam Adebayo, and then some.

2. Jokic is a do-it-all like we’ve never seen

Why Nikola Jokic might be the most unique big man in NBA history.

This could be quite the two-day stretch for Serbia. Novak Djokovic on Sunday became the all-time Grand Slam winner in men’s tennis with his 23rd title, and the oldest champion ever at the French Open, with a straight-set victory at Roland Garros. And now the country of 7 million can double that pleasure if Jokic carries the Nuggets to victory on Monday.

That’s something Serbia, obviously, has never seen before … and in the context of these playoffs and the Finals, Jokic is doing something we’ve never seen before.

He’s dominant with his scoring, rebounding and passing, leading all players in the 2023 postseason in those categories. What can we expect from Jokic in his first close-out game?

Well, perhaps more of the same. Or maybe more.

“I don’t know what it’ll be,” said Jeff Green, “but it’ll be special.”

The last trio of close-out games in the Finals were epic. Stephen Curry put the Celtics to sleep last summer with six 3-pointers and 34 points in Boston. The year before, Antetokounmpo had a 50-point triple-double against the Suns. And in 2020, LeBron had a 28-14-10 triple-double. Those three all-time greats were not to be denied, and were in no mood to play another game.

“We are going to approach this as a must-win game,” Jokic said. “I know this is a big opportunity.”

3. When does Herro suit up next?

The last time the Heat reached the Finals, Tyler Herro was a revelation. He was one of the unexpected stars during the 2020 pandemic-postponed postseason in Orlando, delivering an epic run with a legendary snarl. Miami expected big things in the future from its young up-and-comer and for the most part, Herro has confirmed all the hype ever since.

But you wonder: Has he played his last game in Miami this season?

If so, it will be remembered as the night the Heat perhaps lost any chance of making the 2023 Finals suspenseful, for Herro was lost with a hand injury in the very first playoff game and hasn’t been seen on the court since.

Sunday, the Heat listed Herro as out for Monday’s Game 5, and it’s highly unlikely that status will change before Monday night’s tipoff. 

Herro averaged 20.1 points and 4.2 assists per game for the Heat this season, production the Heat could use right now.  The Heat have averaged only 94 points (on 40.6 percent shooting) in their three losses in this series.

4. Malone more than holding his own

Erik Spoelstra makes a habit out of out-shining the coach on the other bench during the playoffs, and the 2023 carnage has been considerable. Mike Budenholzer lost his job after Miami shocked the Bucks in the first round, and Boston’s Joe Mazzula received a constant social media thrashing during the Eastern Conference Finals when Spoelstra came up with one successful tweak after another.

Well, that’s not the case in the Finals. Michael Malone has been sharp with his decisions, adjustments and motivations. Malone has long been considered one of the better coaches in the league but now that he’s in the Finals for the first time, he’s confirming everything the insiders knew about him. Malone in this series is unflappable, prepared and doing everything he can to keep the Nuggets from falling to the same fate as the Bucks, Knicks and Celtics against Spoelstra.

Malone didn’t hesitate to throw Christian Braun into the mix and it paid off in Game 3. He spent all season preparing Bruce Brown for this moment and that’s producing timely results. Malone has even turned to veteran Green as the (undersized) backup center instead of Thomas Bryant and DeAndre Jordan. That, too, has paid off. The Nuggets have also unlocked the Heat’s zone defense — Miami’s best defense against Jokic — to assume a 3-1 lead in the series.

This is what you’d expect from the son of a coach; Brendan Malone, formerly a longtime NBA assistant coach, taught Michael properly. And that’s paying off.

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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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