Heat-Nuggets NBA Finals 2023: Storylines to watch out for
History awaits the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat, who went on contrasting paths to the NBA Finals.
The Nuggets were the No. 1 team in the Western Conference for most of the regular season while the Heat had to go through the wringer just to make the playoffs as the eighth seed in the East.
Game 1 is on Friday (Manila time) in Denver and while many longed for a dream NBA Finals showdown between two storied franchises in the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, the Heat and the Nuggets’ matchup has the makings of a classic.
Despite joining the league in 1976, Denver is only making its first appearance in the NBA Finals.
Prior to their Finals breakthrough, the Nuggets made the Western Conference Finals four times in 1978, 1985, 2009 and in the Disney bubble in 2020.
All but two players on Denver’s roster are also in their maiden stint in the Finals.
Only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020, and Jeff Green have had previous experience of playing in the Finals. Green reached the Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers back in 2018.
NBA Finals experience
Miami, on the other hand, is no stranger to playing on the biggest stage.
The Heat entered the league in 1988 and have since lifted the trophy thrice in 2006, 2012 and 2013.
And not too long ago, they were in the Finals in 2020 but lost to the Lakers in six games.
Their core, led by Jimmy Butler, has stayed intact and unlike the Nuggets, the Heat have a bevy of players with Finals experience.
Kevin Love has the most NBA Finals appearances with five. He is also one of three Heat players with a championship. The other two are Kyle Lowry, who won a title with the Toronto Raptors in 2019, and three-time champion Udonis Haslem.
The Heat have also closed in on history being just four games away from becoming the first eighth seed to win the NBA title. They’re just the second eighth seed to make the Finals.
Who’s stopping Joker?
Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has been on a historical playoff run.
Through 15 games in the postseason, Jokic is averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, 10.3 assists.
The two-time MVP powered the Nuggets to a surprising sweep of the Lakers in the West Finals where he notched a triple-double in three of the four games.
While Jokic has been the best player in these playoffs, Butler is not far behind.
Butler’s brilliance has been on full display, too, for the Heat.
The 33-year-old forward is putting up 28.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists a game in another postseason masterclass.
“He (Butler) can play 48 if you need him to, and then he just has a way, also, that he has a hard edge. He’s gnarly, but he knows how to have a soft touch to give somebody some confidence at the right time. That’s the special gift that he has,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
“What separates him from most players is his drive. He’s a warrior,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone.
Aside from Jokic and Butler, there are other players to watch out for as far as both teams are concerned.
Also a big part of Denver’s success is Jamal Murray, who is coming off a historic offensive performance in the conference finals.
Murray became the first player in NBA history to average 30 points while shooting 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent at the free throw line.
Bam Adebayo, meanwhile, will have to take his game to greater heights for the Heat to go all the way.
Adebayo will have his hands full in anchoring Miami’s defense against Jokic, who has been nearly unstoppable in the postseason.
“Making him take tough shots. The biggest thing for us is to try to limit his assists. It sounds easier said than done. But biggest thing for us is watching film and figuring that out,” Adebayo said on trying to contain Jokic.
The other guys like Michael Porter Jr., Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have raised the level of their game big time for the Nuggets as well so are the Heat’s unheralded crew of Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, Max Strus and Duncan Robinson.
Much of the attention may be on the players but the chess match between Erik Spoelstra and Michael Malone is also something to look forward to.
Spoelstra, the second longest-tenured coach behind Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, is as experienced as they come in coaching in the NBA Finals, having guided the Heat to back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013 with three more stints in the championship round prior to facing the Nuggets.
Malone, on the other hand, is an NBA Finals first-timer having spent most of his coaching career as a well-respected assistant to several teams before. He got his first head coaching break with the Sacramento Kings during the 2013-14 season before being hired to call the shots in Denver in 2015.
“You get to the NBA Finals, it’s not about seeding anymore,” Malone said after practice in a story on ESPN. “And for those who are thinking that this is going to be an easy series, I don’t even know what to say to you people.
“This is going to be the biggest challenge of our lives. This is the NBA Finals. You’re trying to win the first NBA championship in franchise history, and it’s going to be the hardest thing that we’ve ever done — which is the way it should be.”