The Cinderella story of the playoffs, the Miami Heat, made it out of the Eastern Conference. It was an improbable run fueled by hot three-point shooting. And an elite coach pulling all the right strings in crucial moments. Despite being minutes from elimination in the play-in game against the Bulls, Miami has found its form at the right time.
The Heat started their run-off by rolling through the top-seeded Bucks in five games. Then grinding through the hard-nosed New York Knicks in six. They capped off this magical run to the finals with a convincing Game 7 road win in Boston. They blew the Celtics out on the parquet floors of the TD Garden.
Photo Cred: NBC Sports
Waiting for them on the other side are the Denver Nuggets, who will come into Game 1 well-rested and ready to go after over a week off. Michael Malone’s group has quietly been a powerhouse throughout most of the season, leading the pack out west in the regular season and skating through the first three rounds with little trouble.
The Nuggets made quick work of the Timberwolves in a five-game first-round series before being pushed to six by the Suns, thanks to two heroic performances from Devin Booker. In the conference finals, they showed their mettle, winning four hard-fought, tight games to sweep the Lakers.
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Denver will come in as a heavy favorite with home-court advantage, but the Heat has shown repeatedly that none of that matters to them. Here are a few things to look for in what should be an entertaining series.
How does the Heat match up on defense?
This, to me, is the biggest question coming into the series. Denver has a 121.0 offensive rating thus far in the playoffs, the fourth-best playoff mark in NBA history. However, they have not yet faced a defensive game planner with the expertise or the experience of Erik Spoelstra, who will have a few tricks up his sleeve over the next few weeks. Spoelstra has thrown in plenty of wrinkles on the defensive side of the ball to get Miami to this point, with different lineups and schemes all hitting for the Heat at points throughout their run.
Miami has gone to a zone defense to protect some of their smaller guards and force teams into sloppy turnovers and bad shot selection, specifically from the three-point line. Specifically in the Boston series, the Celtics seemed repeatedly flustered by the zone, despite it coming out in nearly every game. The conundrum is Nikola Jokic is a zone destroyer, and the surrounding parts of the Nugget’s offense could prove too much for Miami’s zone. Jokic’s ability to be an offensive hub from the middle of the floor, with his passing, consistency from the mid-range, and quick dives to the rim could play Miami right back into the man-to-man.
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Will they converge on Jokic in the middle of the zone with a second defender? Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are shooting north of 40% from distance in the postseason. Will they bring help from Aaron Gordon’s man, daring him to shoot? Gordon has proven repeatedly that he is a lethal cutter, and the Nuggets have sprinkled him in some screening actions away from the ball to punish teams for ignoring him.
It will be interesting to see how quickly Spoelstra goes to the zone in this series and what wrinkles he throws into it to try to slow Jokic down in the middle of it. While the zone has been a factor, Miami will still spend their time in man-to-man, which brings up part two of their defensive matchup. How will they guard the two-man game between Jokic and Jamal Murray? The Nuggets’ dynamic duo is at the center of their offense, but they do it in many ways. Sometimes it’s a handoff for Murray. Other times, it’s a classic pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop. They even sprinkle in some inverted actions with Murray screening for Jokic.
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Throughout the playoffs, Miami has mixed up their coverages against actions like these, but it’s the timing of their changeups that has made all the difference. Sometimes they drop do-it-all defensive anchor Bam Adebayo back to the rim; they bring him up to the level of the screen, as they will trap the ball handler. But in Game 7 in Boston, the Heat reversed course, switching 40 of Boston’s 58 pick-and-rolls after switching less than half of the time throughout the first six contests, per Kevin O’Connor and Second Spectrum.
Can Miami continue generating (and knocking down) open threes?
The Heat offense has been buoyed, by Jimmy Butler throughout these playoffs. Butler is the engine of their attack. He has shown the ability to completely take over a game. Butler scored 56 and 42 points in games 4 and 5 to close out the Bucks in the first round. When the Heat offense gets bogged down, they consistently go to Butler. They allow him to hunt mismatches on the offensive end. Butler attacking Murray will be a focal point for Miami, as it was for LeBron James in the Western Conference Finals.
But a portion of the Miami scoring has come from their deep crop of role players, who have consistently knocked down shots throughout these playoffs. Miami was the fourth-worst three-point shooting team during the regular season but has caught fire when it counts, knocking down 39% of their shots from distance to lead the league.
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In the series against Boston, the Heat made a dazzling 58% of their wide-open threes, by far the highest mark by a team over the course of a series in the last ten years and roughly 20% higher than the league average. Part of this success can be incredible shot making (hello, Caleb Martin!), but part of it is how the Heat generates open looks for their elite shooters.
Miami uses screening and handoff actions to get guys like Duncan Robinson and Max Strus open, and they love to take advantage of how teams sag off Butler in pick-and-roll. If teams are dropping on the Butler-Adebayo screen game, Adebayo has become adept at quickly flowing into a handoff for one of their shooters, forcing the big man in the paint to scramble up to prevent the open shot.
Photo: AZ Central
Foot speed on defense has traditionally been a weakness of Jokic; he has improved mightily in that area; he will have to be playing up higher to prevent the Heat supporting cast from finding a rhythm.
What do the rotations look like?
The Nuggets have stuck to a rock-solid eight-man rotation for the playoffs. Malone trimmed it to seven as once-trusted rookie Christian Braun became an offensive liability against the Lakers. Braun saw the floor for just eight minutes in the final three games. The Nuggets starting five is supported by Bruce Brown and Jeff Green off the bench. But does Braun re-enter the rotation against Miami, who is less equipped to take advantage of his size on the perimeter than the Lakers?
On the Miami side, there are a ton of different directions that Spoelstra could go. After starting two bigs, Adebayo and veteran Kevin Love, Love was forced to the bench against Boston as they began to hunt him on defense. Playing Love in this series could be a double-edged sword. Murray will most certainly attack him every chance he gets. However, it could open another tweak for the Heat defense. Love could get some minutes guarding Jokic, allowing Adebayo to play away from the ball as a roamer. The Lakers found some success with a similar tactic, letting Anthony Davis run free while Rui Hachimura tried to body up the two-time MVP.
Photo Cred: USA Today
Late in the Eastern Conference Finals, backup big Cody Zeller was also cut from the rotation, leaving Adebayo as the lone big man getting minutes for Miami. In Zeller’s place, Haywood Highsmith saw the floor. He gave the Heat a spark, even playing some small-ball center minutes in Game 7. The Nuggets also have gone to a small unit when Jokic sits. Moving Gordon to the five and sliding Green next to him. Will Miami match that with Highsmith at the center, or will they try to play Zeller to overpower the Denver bench unit with size?
Another question looming over this series is the pending return of Heat guard Tyler Herro, who broke his hand in the first game of the playoffs but is targeting a possible return in Game 3, according to Chris Haynes. Herro’s microwave scoring ability and on-ball creation could go a long way in diversifying Miami’s offensive attack and relieving some of the pressure on Butler.
Photo Cred: Denver Sports
How much of a factor does experience play?
The Nuggets come into this series as the favorite on paper. But they are lacking in the experience department. Green is the only Denver rotation player who has played in an NBA Finals, as the Nuggets have been eliminated in the west bracket the past four years.
On the other side, this Miami team has been through the wringer. This team was one shot away from the NBA Finals last season and lost to the Lakers in a hard-fought six-game Finals series in the 2020 bubble.
Spoelstra’s experience goes way beyond that. He will be coaching in his sixth NBA Finals, tying him for the fourth most ever. The coach already has two championships under his belt as a head coach. He has shown for over a decade now that he can make life miserable in a playoff series.
Denver has passed every test in this postseason. First as a healthy unit since their run to the conference finals in 2020. But this is a different stage they have never seen before, while the Heat knows what’s coming.
Photo Cred: AP
The Heat have shocked the world for three straight rounds. They won games in every way possible to get to this point. Despite being the second No. 8 seed to make the Finals, they have proven they belong. They are here by beating the top two regular season teams in the NBA.
However, the Nuggets have been a well-oiled machine all season and especially all playoffs. They’re led by a two-time MVP in Jokic, a dynamic shot maker in Murray, and excellent supporting players. In the end, they have the better roster and the best player. I’ll go with the Nuggets in six.