With the stage for the series finally set, we’re breaking down our NBA Finals prediction and the keys to watch as the Miami Heat look to complete their Cinderella story against the favored Denver Nuggets.
After three rounds of action-packed playoff basketball, we now know who the two teams representing their respective conferences will be. The 2023 NBA Finals will be a clash between the top-seeded Denver Nuggets and the eighth-seeded Miami Heat. The two teams that everyone expected, …right?
While the Nuggets’ run through the Western Conference was a reasonable one (our playoff projection model gave them a 16.4% chance of reaching the Finals before the start of the NBA playoffs), the Heat reaching this point has largely defied any and all conventional wisdom.
On April 11, the day before their do-or-die play-in tournament game against the Chicago Bulls, our model gave Miami just a 0.3% chance of getting here. Yet, here they are after not only vanquishing the Bulls, but also besting Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, the New York Knicks in the second round, and most recently, Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics in seven games.
With the stage for this series now set, here are five storylines to monitor as the Heat look to complete their Cinderella story against the Nuggets.
1. The Million Dollar Question
If it wasn’t already the case before the start of the postseason, these last few months have served to cement Nikola Jokić’s status as the best player on the planet.
The superstar center has averaged 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks on 70.1% true shooting while putting together one of the greatest playoff runs ever. (He’s the only player to average at least 29.9 points, 13.3 boards and 10.3 assists through at least eight games of a postseason).
That begs the question: How on Earth can you contain him?
In the Western Conference finals, the Los Angeles Lakers came closer than anyone else has this postseason, deploying a tactic known as the man-spy technique.
(Sidebar: For those who aren’t aware, the man-spy technique basically involved having Rui Hachimura or LeBron James guard Jokić 1-on-1, while Anthony Davis – one of the best rim protectors in basketball – defended a “non-shooter” in Aaron Gordon and lingered around the paint to provide help on the backline.)
With this in mind, it would stand to reason that the Heat attempt to emulate this strategy, but there are two problems with that approach.
First, Miami doesn’t have the best personnel for making the man-spy work. Bam Adebayo is an incredibly gifted and versatile defender. But he isn’t nearly the rim protector that Davis is (Adebayo averaged a block percentage of 2.4% compared to Davis’ 5.1%), so him acting as the “spy” in this formation won’t be as effective.
Also, Miami doesn’t have a great candidate to fill the “man” role either. Jimmy Butler could theoretically try and do it, but having him on Jokić for long stretches could wear him out and mitigates his value as an off-ball defensive playmaker. And while Kevin Love and Cody Zeller are both big bodies, they both come with some massive tradeoffs (both can get hunted on the perimeter, and Zeller hurts Miami’s spacing).
Even if they did somehow manage to figure out an adequate setup for utilizing the man-spy, they run into problem No. 2, which is that Denver has already shown they have ways of countering this coverage.
Here are a couple of examples of how Denver did it:
Now, this isn’t the only way Miami can approach the Jokić matchup, but it just goes to show how tall of a task defending him will ultimately be (and why the person who figures it out should be paid one million dollars!).
2. What’s up with Playoff Jimmy?
After a video game first-round stat line of 37.6 points per game (PPG) on 67.1% true shooting, the fellow with the moniker “Playoff Jimmy” has lost some wind in his sails. In the last two rounds (12 games), Butler has averaged just (it feels silly saying “just” here) 24.7 PPG on 53.2% true shooting.
His performance tailed off so much that his teammate Caleb Martin (another candidate to be the “man” in Miami’s man-spy) received four of the nine votes for Eastern Conference finals MVP.
However, what those PPG averages and voters are missing is how much Butler’s presence is helping his teammates. Thanks to his proficiency as a scorer in round uno, teams have been doing all they can to send extra pressure in his direction. As a result, he is drawing the gaze of two defenders (or more) more frequently and creating open looks for his teammates.
In the first round, Butler averaged 8.8 potential assists per game (per NBA.com). In the last two rounds, he’s averaged 10.7 potential assists per game. And that only encapsulates his on-ball shot creation for others. That says nothing about his off-ball gravity (but the clip below does!).
All this is to say that just because he’s not producing the insane scoring outbursts he was against Milwaukee, the legend of Playoff Jimmy has somehow faded away.
But still, it would go a long way toward increasing Miami’s win probability (more on that at the end) if Butler could pull another 40-point masterpiece or two out of his hat.
3. The Last Non-Shooter Standing
One of the central themes of this entire playoffs has been that if the defense considers you to be a “non-shooter,” and you’re not a center, you likely will get played off the court. It happened to Isaac Okoro. It happened to Davion Mitchell. It happened to Jarred Vanderbilt. And it almost happened to Gordon.
As we mentioned earlier, part of the reason Los Angeles could use the man-spy is because Davis could sag off of Gordon without paying too high of a tax for leaving him relatively open (he’s a career 32.7% 3-point shooter).
Through the first three games of the series, Gordon averaged just 9.7 PPG on 51.3% true shooting. And in that third game, he was relegated to the bench for the entirety of the fourth quarter. But instead of falling further into the abyss in Game 4, Gordon responded with his best outing of the series – posting 22 points, six rebounds, and five assists on a 71.8% true shooting.
And while Gordon used Game 4 to conduct a clinic on how to be impactful on offense without shooting, a big reason for his success was his ability to take and make the 3-point looks the Lakers were giving him (he was 3 of 5 from 3 in that game).
So, which version of Gordon will we see in the Finals? The one who starred in Game 4 against the Lakers? Or the one who was nearly played off the floor?
4. The White Hot Heat
You know we couldn’t have a series preview involving the 2023 Heat without mentioning this. The Heat, after finishing 27th in the regular season in 3-point percentage (34.4%), have led the entire postseason pool of teams in that category, converting on 39% of their triples.
The most fascinating part about their shooting is that their best runs have come in the matchups in which they have been heavy underdogs. They shot 45.0% from 3 in the first round against the Bucks and 43.4% against the Celtics in the conference finals. Meanwhile, they shot just 30.6% against the Knicks (the one series that was viewed as more of a coin toss by mainstream media).
We’ve already discussed why Miami’s white-hot shooting isn’t as flukey as some people claim, but you have to wonder: How long can the Heat keep shooting near/above 40% from downtown, and what does this series look like if they don’t?
5. Why Denver is Different
Those perusing the social media airwaves have likely seen someone out there make the argument that we can’t bet against the Heat because we did it against Milwaukee and Boston, and look where that got us.
That is true. This postseason, the Heat have proven how far continuity, culture and determination can take you in sports. With that said, Jokić, Jamal Murray and the West champs are a different challenge than anything they’ve faced thus far.
As we’ve said before, Denver is both versatile and resilient. The former was missing in Milwaukee, while Boston’s unit lacked the latter attribute. Let us explain.
While the criticism thrown in his direction was a tad bit overblown, former Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer couldn’t/wouldn’t adjust his defense when the Heat started torching the Bucks’ coverage. This indicates a lack of versatility. In the playoffs, your team needs to be able to shapeshift and assimilate itself to the various environments that each series/opponent presents. Milwaukee couldn’t do that against Miami, and that’s why the Bucks are at home.
The big knock on Boston all year was that it had the best team on paper, but in practice, the Celtics struggled to execute with consistency. This indicates a lack of resiliency. Just because you have a formula for success doesn’t mean you have everything figured out. You need to keep playing that way, even when the other team is constantly throwing different looks your way. Boston couldn’t do that against Miami, and that’s why the Celtics are at home.
Denver has demonstrated all postseason long that it has a lot of ways to beat you. The Nuggets are well-coached and they will keep finding ways to execute regardless of what challenges are being placed in front of them (see them finding counters to the man-spy).
Denver won’t fall victim to the same mistakes that Milwaukee and Boston made, and that’s why the Nuggets won’t be so easy to send home.
Series Win Probability: Who Has the Edge?
In terms of the moneyline, sportsbooks have the Nuggets, who have the home-court advantage at Ball Arena, as the best bets (-400) to win their first NBA championship and the Heat as the underdogs (+300).
But what is our model’s prediction for who will win the title?
For those who were unaware, this model calculates each team’s chances of winning the title outright based on thousands of simulations.
It incorporates our adjusted team ratings (including overall adjusted team rating, adjusted offensive rating, and adjusted defensive rating), accounts for recency bias (so it gives more weight to teams playing well), and for how well teams performed against other good teams.
Perhaps as expected, it gives the Nuggets a 65.2% probability of taking down the Heat in the Finals. Of course, we’ve heard that Erik Spoelstra’s Heat don’t have much of a chance before.
And with Tyler Herro projected to return in Game 3, they could prove once again that anything is possible with them this postseason.
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