After Monday night’s beatdown of the Celtics by the Heat in Boston in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the NBA Finals are finally set.
Starting at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, the Miami Heat will face the Denver Nuggets in the final series of the NBA season. This year’s Finals might seem lopsided in favor of the Nuggets, but the Heat have shown over the past few rounds that they take pride in being giant-killers.
Miami will face its biggest giant to date in the finals, though, in Denver center Nikola Jokic. The two-time NBA MVP might have been robbed of a third individual accolade this season, but he hasn’t let it affect his playoff performance.
In 15 postseason games so far in 2023, the Joker is averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists per game. He is the third player ever, joining Wilt Chamberlain (1967) and Magic Johnson (1982), to enter the NBA Finals averaging a triple-double, and his eight triple-doubles this playoffs are already the most by a single player in a single postseason.
Jokic is the unique player who can affect a basketball game in every conceivable way. His big frame allows him to bully smaller defenders and get open looks in the post. He can knock down mid-range and 3-point jumpers. He’s a maniac on the offensive glass. And he’s the best passing big man in NBA history, regularly dropping ludicrous dimes to his teammates.
Jokic is the engine that makes Denver go, but the Nuggets are not a one-man circus. Denver’s second-best player during the postseason has been Jamal Murray, who is finally returning to form after tearing his ACL back in April 2021. The guard is averaging 27.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game in the postseason while shooting 39.8% from 3-point range, and he’s scored at least 35 points in a game on four separate occasions.
On top of Jokic and Murray, Denver has other offensive options like Michael Porter Jr. (14.6 ppg), Aaron Gordon (13.0), Bruce Brown (12.2) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (11.7) than can carry the burden for a few minutes while one of the top two is on the bench.
Miami, on the other hand, is by no means a flame-throwing offense. The Heat have one and a half stars in small forward Jimmy Butler and center Bam Adebayo, and the latter was frustratingly passive on offense in the series win over the Celtics. Stepping up in a big way for the Heat in the playoffs this spring have been their role players — namely Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent — who are averaging 14.1 and 13.1 points per game, respectively, this postseason.
Where the Heat do have an advantage over the Nuggets is in coaching. Michael Malone is a fine leader, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Miami’s Erik Spoelstra.
Starting as a video assistant for the team back in 1997, Spoelstra has been the Heat’s coach since 2008 and has won two NBA championships back in 2012 and 2013. This is his sixth Finals appearance as a head coach, his most recent coming during the NBA Bubble back in 2020.
During the Eastern Conference Finals, Spoelstra put on a coaching clinic against Boston’s Joe Mazzula. In the final two games of the series, the Heat coach employed a zone that confused the Celtics and caused them to make just 16-of-77 (20.8%) of their 3-pointers.
Spoelstra will have his hands full with trying to slow down Jokic and the rest of Denver’s high-powered offense in this series, but if there’s anyone I trust to figure out a viable strategy, it’s him.
Still, it’s going to take more than preparation to beat the Nuggets. Executing under the bright lights is a whole other story. Personally, I think it will be tough for Miami to keep pace with Denver.
Jokic is the best player in the NBA right now and is rising up the list of best all-time big men by the day. Beating the Heat and winning his first NBA championship this season would go a long way toward bolstering his legacy, one which is still growing at just 28 years old.