The 2023 NBA Finals are set. The #1 seed Denver Nuggets face off with the #8 seed Miami HEAT. At long last, the wait is over.
Miami's road has been anything but traditional. Not only are they the first 8-seed to advance to the promised land since the 1999 New York Knicks, but they've taken down the two best teams in the NBA to get there, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, both of whom finished with better records than Denver in the regular season.
Of course, it wasn't a road without some adversity. Miami nearly became the first team to ever blow a 3-0 lead against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals... but they took care of business, 103-84, in Game 7. It helped that Boston star Jayson Tatum turned his ankle within the first minute of play and was visibly hobbled throughout the entire contest. Miami has played in 7 hard-fought games in 14 days coming into the NBA Finals.
The HEAT head to Denver with just a two-day rest period between Game 7 of the Conference Finals and Game 1 of the Finals. There, they'll play the Nuggets, who remain undefeated at home in the postseason and have had 9 days off since the Western Conference Finals. Did we mention there's a major altitude change, as well, for Miami? Attrition could absolutely be a major factor, especially early in the Finals.
The Nuggets have lost just 3 total games so far in the postseason. As mentioned, they've been absolutely dominant at Ball Arena and hold homecourt advantage for the NBA Finals. They've also taken down a laundry list of stars—LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Anthony Davis, Anthony Edwards, and Karl-Anthony Towns—to get there. It's been a magical run.
Denver has won 9 of its last 10 matchups with the HEAT dating all the way back to the NBA Bubble. Going further than that—the last time that Miami won a game at Ball Arena was in November 2016 during Nikola Jokić's second season in the NBA.
A LOOK AT THE NUMBERS
This preview is going to dive pretty deep into the nitty-gritty numbers, so we'll start with the basics. A disclaimer: statistics are pulled from Cleaning the Glass, which excludes garbage time.
The Nuggets are bludgeoning playoff opponents by a ridiculous 9.4 points per 100 possessions, the best net rating of the postseason. Second on that list is, unsurprisingly, Miami, who has beaten its playoff foes by 3.4 points per 100 possessions.
Denver is the #1 offense in the playoffs, scoring an outrageous 121.7 points per 100 possessions. For context, the superteam 2016-17 Golden State Warriors that won the championship averaged 121.3 points per 100 possessions in the postseason.
The Nuggets are scoring well from practically every area of the floor; they're the postseason's best three-point shooting team at 40.7 percent, and they rank within the top-6 in field goal percentage from both the short midrange (typically where players hoist floaters and hook shots) and the long midrange.
Miami, meanwhile, has the 7th-best postseason offense heading into the Finals. And that's with them shooting 38.5 percent from deep, the 3rd-best three-point accuracy of the postseason. They ranked within the bottom-4 in outside shooting during the regular season at 34.8 percent (we'll touch more on Miami's outstanding shooting shortly). Otherwise, they've been a below-average offense from every other area of the floor.
Both teams are about even defensively; Denver ranks 8th on defense while Miami sits at spot #6 on the leaderboard.
The two finalists are also excellent in the clutch; in the last five minutes of games decided by 5 points or less, Miami is winning these minutes by a monstrous 32.3 points per 100 possessions, the best crunchtime net rating of the postseason. Denver is also prolific in this setting, scoring 12.6 points per 100 possessions. Keep in mind: these samples are pretty small, just 63 minutes in total for both teams.
A few miscellaneous statistics before we move on.
Denver is scoring more points on the fastbreak and with more efficiency than Miami, a topic we'll expand upon momentarily. The Nuggets are also averaging a ridiculous 51.5 points in the paint, which leads the postseason. Miami ranks 12th in that category with 44.1 points in the paint per contest. Lastly, Denver is smoking defenses in the halfcourt with a postseason-leading 105.6 half-court offensive rating. Miami is scoring 99.9 points per 100 half-court possessions, the 5th-best half-court offensive rating in the playoffs.
Denver is also dishing 25.9 assists per game in the postseason, ranked 3rd. The HEAT average 23.7 dimes, good for 8th place.
We'll close out this section with maybe the most important statistical battleground: rebounding.
Rebounding has largely dictated the Nuggets' playoff run. They're 10-1 if they outrebound their opponent. Denver's 44.2 rebounds per contest is the 7th-best mark of the postseason. Miami, an undersized team, has grabbed an average of 41 boards per game, ranked 11th. Relentlessly attacking the glass should be high on Denver's to-do list in the Finals.
DEFENSIVE MATCHUPS (MIAMI)
Bam Adebayo → Nikola Jokić
Jimmy Butler → Aaron Gordon
Max Strus → Michael Porter Jr.
Gabe Vincent → Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Caleb Martin → Jamal Murray
First things first: Miami will likely switch 1-through-4 pretty frequently, so individual matchups don't matter as much as they have in previous series.
Jimmy Butler's offensive load will be immense. Allowing him to rest a bit on Aaron Gordon is in Miami's best interest. He's also the HEAT's most stout non-Bam Adebayo defender, making him Miami's best option for the overpowering Aaron Gordon. Plus, he can freelance here and there when Gordon is stashed on the perimeter and pick off steals. Jimmy's swiped away 2.1 steals per game in the postseason, second-best of all 216 players that qualified.
Deciding who gets the Jamal Murray assignment will be a big one for Miami. Gabe Vincent is certainly an option given that he's particularly pesky guarding the point-of-attack. But his size could be problematic versus Murray. 6'5" Caleb Martin might be Miami's best option. Murray's averaging 27.7 points per game on 48/39.8/92.5 shooting splits to go with 6.3 assists, so he'll be a handful for whoever gets the matchup.
This leaves Vincent on Caldwell-Pope.
If Jamal continues to look as unstoppable as he has in the postseason, an adjustment we might see from Miami is Butler guarding Murray. Though, that's a counter coach Erik Spoelstra will likely stash away. Keeping Butler fresh on both ends is paramount, as mentioned.
Max Strus needs to guard someone, so Michael Porter Jr. it is. If Nuggets fans are getting flashbacks to MPJ rising over the top of the much smaller Austin Reaves for three-pointers, good. He'll have the opportunity to shoot over the top of his matchup, once more.
And then finally, Bam Adebayo is Miami's best option for containing the unstoppable force that is Nikola Jokić. As pointed out by the DNVR's Harrison Wind on Twitter, Jokić has historically feasted against Adebayo, who at 6'9" with a 30-pound weight disadvantage offers very little resistance to The Joker's bruising post-up game.
If Bam guarding Jokić proves to be a losing battle, Miami could attempt to replicate Los Angeles' strategy and have someone like Kevin Love defend Nikola with Adebayo lurking nearby as a secondary defender.
Michael Malone and staff have counters ready to go if this type of adjustment occurs.
DEFENSIVE MATCHUPS (DENVER)
Nikola Jokić → Bam Adebayo
Aaron Gordon → Jimmy Butler
Michael Porter Jr. → Max Strus
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope → Caleb Martin
Jamal Murray → Gabe Vincent
Let's breeze through a couple of these.
Jokić should get a bit of a breather on defense after guarding Anthony Davis in the Western Conference Finals. Like Davis, Adebayo is a high-flyer that can cram home dunks out of the pick-and-roll. But he's much more offensively limited than AD.
Porter Jr. won't be able to provide as much secondary rim protection compared to Denver's previous series. Strus is not a guy you can leave alone on the perimeter.
Caldwell-Pope is Denver's best starting perimeter defender. His role could change game-to-game depending upon which of Miami's (non-Jimmy Butler) players is scorching nets. As of now, that's Caleb Martin, who nearly won the Eastern Conference Finals MVP by averaging 19.3 points per game on 60.2 shooting and 48.9 percent from three.
That leaves Murray defending whoever's left. So, Vincent.
Onto the fun stuff.
Jimmy Butler has been one of the best players of the 2023 postseason. He's averaging 28.5 points on 48.8 percent shooting from the field and is getting to the free-throw line a ridiculous 9.6 times per game.
Now, as pointed out by The Ringer's Zach Kram, Gordon has historically done an excellent job against Butler. He's the only defender to hold Butler below a 27 percent effective field goal percentage, and Jimmy's averaging 6.5 points per 100 possessions fewer against Gordon compared to his other matchups.
KEY TO THE SERIES (MIAMI)
Miami will need to slow down Denver's offense. Simply put.
No team has come remotely close to mastering that challenge.
The Los Angeles Lakers entered the Conference Finals with the best defense of the postseason. Denver promptly hung 123.2 points per 100 possessions on them in the four-game sweep.
Expect Spoelstra, one of the best coaches in the business, to throw everything at Denver.
Miami has run more zone defense than any playoff team en route to its Finals berth. Moreover, they've been successful with it.
However, as pointed out by the Action Network's Matt Moore, Denver was the #1 offense at scoring against zone defenses in both the regular season and postseason.
(Because zone defense is played so sparingly in the NBA, zone samples are pretty small. That's something to keep in mind.)
Two things warp zone defenses: ball movement and three-point shooting. As mentioned, Denver ranks 3rd in assists and is 1st in three-point shooting in the postseason. They're well-equipped.
Driving hard into the middle of the zone and then kicking out to an open shooter is a great way to break zone defenses. Here, Jaylen Brown drives middle, pulling in the help from Martin, which opens up the long-range look for Marcus Smart.
Getting the ball into the middle of the floor—right at the center of the free-throw line—is another way to warp zone defenses. Here's an example of Jayson Tatum getting an open midrange shot by flashing to the middle of the zone.
Now, picture Jokić in this spot. He's either splashing the midrange look, posting up, or finding an open shooter when Miami helps. There might not be a better zone-buster in the NBA than Jokić due to his shooting and passing.
Zone defenses also concede offensive rebounds, which as covered, is a major area of opportunity for Denver.
Miami closed out the Celtics in Game 7 by switching almost all of Boston's pick-and-rolls to remarkable efficiency. It's pretty unlikely that strategy is successful against Denver. Jokić is too good at posting up mismatches to move Adebayo away from him. He'll simply feast against someone like Martin if Miami switches on pick-and-rolls between him and Murray.
Some combination of zone defense, man-to-man, and 1-through-4 switching is likely Miami's best shot. How Spoelstra alternates his defenses is what really matters; if all goes well, he can throw Denver off its game by mixing and matching coverages.
One last thing.
28.7 percent of the shots taken against Miami have been non-corner three-pointers, the 6th-highest frequency of the postseason. Yet, opponents made just 30.6 percent of those looks. New York and Milwaukee, particularly, were without the long-range shooting acumen to burn Miami for conceding so many above-the-break three-pointers.
That brings us to Denver, who is shooting an asinine 40.7 percent on their above-the-break shots. Miami cannot afford to give up non-corner three-point looks at the rate they are against Denver should they want to stay competitive in the series.
KEY TO THE SERIES (DENVER)
Miami's lived off generating turnovers.
The HEAT are forcing 13.8 turnovers per game in the postseason, 5th-best among all 16 playoff teams.
Denver has been remarkably good at taking care of the ball in the playoffs. They're averaging just 11.4 turnovers per contest, the best mark of the postseason. That's a massive jump from the 14.5 turnovers they averaged in the regular season, which ranked 20th in the NBA.
They'll need to continue taking care of the ball to avoid giving Miami easy looks in transition.
You could make the argument that Miami's entire team is an X-Factor.
Three of Miami's 5 starters were undrafted. They've all stepped up at different moments.
Vincent's 29 points in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals helped the HEAT go up 3-0 in the series. Martin was the hero of Game 7 thanks to a huge 26 points.
The three-ball has defined Miami's run. It's their X-Factor. All but one game of the Eastern Conference Finals was decided by three-point shooting.
Miami shot a preposterous 45 percent from deep against Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs. They nailed 43.4 percent of their threes versus Boston in the Conference Finals. The HEAT have made an improbable 43.1 percent of their catch-and-shoot looks from deep, which leads the postseason. They made 34.1 percent of them in the regular season, the 3rd-worst catch-and-shoot three-point percentage among all 30 teams.
They're simply shooting the cuff off the ball at the perfect time.
Vincent and Martin were brought up for a reason. Vincent's nailing 39 percent of his threes in the playoffs after going just 33.4 percent from behind the arc in the regular season. Martin has also experienced a massive boost in three-point accuracy, going from 35.6 percent in the regular season to 43.8 percent in the playoffs.
A three-point dip from either player, much less both, will doom Miami against an offense as good as Denver's. The HEAT shot just 30.6 percent from three against the New York Knicks and won in the second round, but the difference in talent between New York and Denver is canyon-sized. That can't happen again.
Miami has no other choice but to continue to live or die by the three-pointer.
As mentioned earlier, Denver is bombarding opponents on the fastbreak with 16.6 points per game, the 2nd-most in the postseason.
Miami's transition defense is allowing opponents to run out for just 11.7 points per game, the playoffs' fifth-stingiest number.
The battle between Miami's fastbreak defense and Denver's transition game is worth keeping an eye on.
Bruce Brown is Denver's leading fastbreak scorer in the postseason. 3.3 of Brown's 12.2 points per game come from attacking in transition.
He dropped 25 points in Denver's pivotal Game 5 win against Phoenix in the second round by religiously beating the Suns down the floor.
The Nuggets will need to poke holes in Miami's staunch transition defense. That aspect of Denver's offensive game is led by Brown, an energizer bunny fastbreak force.
All statistics courtesy of NBA Stats or Cleaning the Glass unless stated otherwise.