After a blowout game seven win last night against the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat have advanced to the NBA Finals and will continue their underdog run against the juggernaut Denver Nuggets this Thursday. While many were hoping to see LeBron James complete his quest for a fifth ring this season, only casuals will deny that this Heat-Nuggets matchup will be incredibly exciting to watch. If you haven’t been keeping up with the NBA playoffs, you’re in the right place. Hopefully, by the time you’ve finished reading this NBA Finals preview, you’ll be confident enough to talk about these teams with Stephen A. Smith on First Take (or just your buddies from home). With that being said, let’s take a look at each of our conference champions, starting with the Denver Nuggets.
Denver Nuggets (-480 via FanDuel)
After masterclasses from Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray in a sweep against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Denver Nuggets look completely unstoppable. With Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all shooting around 40% from three during the playoffs, the Nuggets offense will be an incredible test for Erik Spoelstra and the Heat. Although Miami caused the Boston Celtics a tremendous amount of issues with their stifling zone defense, Nikola Jokić’s ability as a passer is unlike anything the Heat have witnessed so far in their past three series. Not to mention Jokić’s own playoff three-point shooting percentage (47.4%), Denver will not shoot themselves out of games like the Celtics did in game seven against Miami. If the Nuggets continue to shoot the three at an efficient clip, Miami’s zone defense will quickly be torn apart.
On the other side of the ball, the Nuggets are tasked with slowing down not only Jimmy Butler but a handful of Heat role players who have been playing elite basketball down the stretch as well. In spite of Aaron Gordon doing a solid job defending stars like LeBron and KD throughout the playoffs, his likely defensive assignment to Jimmy Butler will be the most difficult one yet. Although Butler had a couple of rough games against the Celtics, he has been a nightmare for every team so far and I don’t expect that to change. If Denver can slow down Jimmy, they’ll have a much better chance of preventing Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, and others from going completely nuclear in this series.
Miami Heat (+330 via FanDuel)
The Heat might seem like big underdogs from the outside looking in, but I’m certain that they don’t feel the same way. Hot three-point shooting and irritatingly tough defense have catapulted them to the Finals, beating the odds again and again. I’m sure many of you saw the ESPN graphic that gave the Heat a three percent chance to beat the Celtics, which is exactly why I’m hesitant to say that the Nuggets will mop the floor with Miami. At what point do we forget seeding and just accept Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent for the flat-out buckets that they are? Jimmy Butler is obviously the best player on Miami, but Caleb Martin was the true MVP of the Eastern Conference Finals, averaging 19.2 PPG and only shooting under 50% from the field in one game against the Celtics. Martin is the x-factor for the Miami Heat moving forward and will have tremendous influence on their success against the Nuggets. It’s imperative that the Heat continue to get Caleb Martin pick-and-roll looks and let him create offense in half-court situations in order to keep him both involved and hot. With the potential return of 20 PPG scorer Tyler Herro (out since April with a fractured right hand), the Heat have solid fire power on offense but have a daunting challenge ahead of them on the defensive end.
Bam Adebayo will have to play BIG against Nikola Jokić to try and slow him down. The Nuggets offense consistently runs through Jokić, so the Heat will surely attempt to throw a variety of defenses at him in order to cause confusion and force as many turnovers as possible. Even if Miami can somehow lock up Jokić – who has had an absolutely outstanding playoff run thus far – they still have to worry about the one-on-one star power from Jamal Murray. Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, and possibly even Jimmy Butler will have to give everything they have on the defensive end to prevent Murray from catching fire. If Murray has a series like he did against the Lakers, I’m not so sure that even the great shooting from the Heat as of late will be able to match the Nuggets offensively. No one has been able to figure out how to stop the Nuggets this entire season, but if I had to choose one coach to do so, it would be Spoelstra.
Although I’ve watched almost all of the NBA playoffs this year, I would be lying if I said my initial championship pick is anywhere close to reality. Hopefully, I’ll earn some redemption with my Finals picks.
NBA Champs – Denver Nuggets in Six Games
I strongly believe that Jimmy Butler and the Heat are good enough to get two games against the Nuggets, but this is Denver’s year. They’re on such a roll right now that I’d probably pick them to win a seven-game series against any team in the NBA.
Finals MVP – Nikola Jokić
This might seem pretty chalk, but it’s undeniable. If you’re feeling bold, I don’t hate sprinkling some Jamal Murray for Finals MVP, but Jokić feels like too much of a lock for me to not pick him.