The ratings might eventually suggest otherwise, but both passionate and casual NBA fans still have plenty of reasons to watch this year’s NBA Finals.
It showcases a top-seeded team that doesn’t feel it receives enough respect (Denver Nuggets) against an overachieving eighth seed that prides itself on its culture (Miami Heat). The series will feature a two-time regular-season MVP that will try to prove his postseason worth on the biggest stage (Nuggets center Nikola Jokic). The series will also highlight a passionate star that seems to thrive in the game’s biggest moments (Heat forward Jimmy Butler).
There could be plenty of subplots involving each team’s supporting cast. Same thing with Denver coach Michael Malone and Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, both of whom are two of the NBA’s more established coaches.
It would have been inevitable that more fans would tune in to yet another NBA Finals featuring the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. The consolation prize isn’t so bad, though. After all, both the Nuggets and Heat have arrived here because they played more consistent postseason basketball.
Below are five developments to monitor throughout an NBA Finals that should still have some riveting moments.
Rust vs. rest?
The Nuggets and Heat begin Game 1 on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC) with navigating an age-old question.
Is it better to begin a playoff series feeling rested? Or is it better to enter a series in peak rhythm? Denver hasn’t played since eliminating the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals on May 22, leaving them eight days without competing against an opponent. The Heat last played in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics on Sunday, leaving Miami with exactly two days of both rest and preparation before suiting up again.
“We’re not getting into any of that stuff,” Spoelstra told reporters. “Our guys are in great shape. They’re ready to compete. If Denver wants to tip this thing off at the top of [Mount] Everest, we’ll do that. This thing is going to be decided between the four lines. They’ve also got to come back to Miami. If you want to make it about that, we’ll turn off the air conditioning and they’ve got to play in 90-degree humidity.”
Meanwhile, the Heat will have to play in an altitude-high city without much time to settle into their environment. At least, they will be more equipped to adjust to that challenge after playing recently. In fairness, both the Heat and Nuggets prioritize their players’ conditioning levels. Perhaps this variable cancels each other out then. Nonetheless, this factor still appears important to monitor.
Will Nikola Jokic continue to dominate?
Throughout the Nuggets’ series against the Lakers, LeBron James and Anthony Davis repeatedly shook their head in both resignation and amusement. Jokic hoisted a few turnaround shots before the shot clock expired with a defender closely contesting the attempt. The ball still went into the net. Jokic does not normally take those shot attempts. Jokic remains more deliberate with how he decides to shoot or pass. Yet, those plays captured the seemingly impossible task of defending Jokic.
“Make him take tough shots, force him into tough shots, and live with the result,” Heat forward Bam Adebayo told reporters. “That’s the biggest thing for me.”
Jokic still has set an NBA record for most triple-doubles in the playoffs (eight), even with opponents taking that approach. That will not stop Miami, however, from at least trying. Heat forward Jimmy Butler noted the importance of “gang rebounding” so that the job does not just fall on front-court players. He also highlighted the need for the Heat to guard Jokic ”as a team with all five guys.”
Nonetheless, the Heat should not double team Jokic because he would simply connect with open teammates beyond the perimeter. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (41.1%), Michael Porter Jr. (40.8%) and Jamal Murray (39.8%) all have connected well from deep this postseason. Instead, the Heat are better off with Adebayo drawing the primary defensive assignment on Jokic before throwing different defenders at him in hopes to throw off his rhythm and drain his stamina. Easier said than done, of course.
“I feel like this is one of those series where he becomes very dangerous when you let his teammates get involved,” Adebayo said. “He can make those incredible passes and end up with 12 assists.”
Will Jimmy Butler continue to rise to the occasion?
Jokic’s brilliance aside, Butler has become the NBA’s second-best player in the playoffs thus far, even if he technically ranks seventh among postseason players in points per game (28.5).
Butler has exerted his will with showcasing his unmatched competitiveness, with elevating his teammates and with fueling the team’s confidence through its unexpected championship run. Butler earned Eastern Conference MVP honors after averaging 24.7 points, 7.6 rebound, 6.1 assists, 2.6 steals and countless intangibles in Miami’s seven-game series against Boston.
Just like with the Heat’s strategy on Jokic, Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said “it’s going to take a team effort” with containing Butler. Just like the Nuggets can do when teams overload on Jokic, the Heat will punish Denver if it puts too much focus on limiting Butler. Adebayo has expanded his offensive game in aggressiveness and attempts. The Heat also have a handful of proven shooters that are ready if Butler draws a double team, including Duncan Robinson (44.6%), Caleb Martin (43.8%) and Gabe Vincent (39%).
“If I’m not open, I’m going to pass the ball,” Butler told reporters. “I’m going to try to collapse the defense and create help, kick it to my open shooters, play basketball the right way, and know that this team’s way of playing basketball is going to win it for us.”
Regardless, Butler enters the series nursing a recently sprained right ankle. After missing Game 2 of Miami’s second-round series against New York three weeks ago, Butler aggravated it in Game 7 against Boston.
“I’m going to say nobody cares. You don’t, either,” Butler told reporters. “I’m still expected to do my job at a high level if I take the floor, which I will. We’re going to be okay. We’re going to get the job done, bum ankle or not.”
Which Nuggets or Heat player becomes biggest X factor?
Theoretically, Denver and Miami advanced to the NBA Finals because they are the two best teams in the league. The other reason? As Murray argued, “they have the most chemistry within each other.”
No doubt. Both teams have thrived on its continuity, depth and team oriented-culture. That creates a fascinating subplot: Which Nuggets or Heat player becomes the series biggest X factor?
Will it be Porter, who has emerged as a dependable two-way player after spending his first three NBA seasons dealing with injuries and learning curves? Will it be Aaron Gordon, who arguably should have landed an All-Star reserve spot for his consistent defense, positional versatility and hustle? Or will it be Denver’s key off-season acquisitions (Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown), both of whom have become dependable two-way perimeter threats?
How about for Miami? Can point guard Kyle Lowry or forward Kevin Love offer flashes of their prime while recently embracing reduced roles? Can one of the Heat’s shooters have a scorching night? Will Heat guard Tyler Herro return at some point after Game 1 and thrive after missing the past 17 playoff games because of a broken right hand?
So many possibilities, so many ways the series can shift in either team’s direction.
Which coach will have a greater influence in NBA Finals?
Malone has talked openly about the apparent disrespect the team receives with its lack of media coverage. Spoelstra has respectfully declined to detail what “Heat culture” means.
Malone and Spoelstra might have differences with their public messaging, but they possess many similarities with how they coach their respective teams.
They both bring a workmanlike approach to the craft filled with extensive gameplans, candid feedback and empowering resiliency. That has helped both teams stay motivated and confident both through the good and the bad. That approach has also brought out the best in both their stars and role players.
It will be interesting to see if either coach differentiates himself in this series. Spoelstra has more Finals experience, including two NBA titles in five different appearances. But Malone has guided the Nuggets to five consecutive postseason appearances.
“Mike has an edge. That edge is going to be there for both sides,” Spoelstra told reporters. “It’s going to be decided between those four lines. This is what you want. You want the greatest challenges in this league. You’re not expecting anything to be easy, particularly when you get to this level.”