(1) Denver Nuggets versus (8) Miami Heat
“These are lessons that we’re going to pass on to our children about perseverance. Things don’t go your way; we just keep forging ahead and suffer and suffer and suffer until you get what you want.” – Erik Spoelstra
“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.” – Michael Malone
This year’s NBA Finals contains probably the two most diametrically opposed teams we’ll ever see come this far. Denver got here through the versatility of their offense and how unstoppable they’ve been on that end. Jokic being able to score, rebound and pass very well simultaneously got them past the best defense in the western conference. Their frontline has size, their backcourt has speed and shooting, and their overall offensive movement combined with Jokic’s passing is a sight to see.
Miami is a bit more of an enigma. They’ve been the hardest team to predict the last couple of years primarily because their best strengths aren’t tied to statistics. Defense is of course how they primarily got here, as their offense has slowly catered off throughout the playoffs. They play significantly better than their regular season stats, have one of the best coaching strategists in the game today, and one physically dominant player who can lead an offense and attack mismatches. Their organization is known for a culture of conformity and accountability, so their players after Butler and Adebayo beat you to death by a thousand-cuts. While Butler/Adebayo handle primary defensive schemes, the rest of the roster buys in and play so collectively together that they always execute and get stops just a little bit more than the other team.
What both teams do share, however, is that they play incredibly well collectively; they just happen to do so at opposite ends of the floor. It will be a series of which type of team basketball is more likely to flourish: the best offensive shooting and passing we’ve seen since the Spurs or the best defensive frontline, coaching, and absolute dogs on a roster since the 04 Pistons?
Starting with the intangibles, Denver has all of them. They’ve had more time to rest and game plan while Miami played a game every other day in a seven-game series. Their offense teetering off throughout the playoffs is indicative of possible fatigue, and with Denver’s altitude, it’s a factor when Denver has homecourt advantage. The only real intangible Miami has is Spoelstra’s coaching, which is somewhat diluted when Miami couldn’t end their eastern conference finals series soon enough to game plan. It may not ultimately matter, but Denver certainly comes in these finals with more inherent advantages.
If I could only to ask myself one question to guess the outcome of the series, it’s if Miami can stop Denver’s offense. Los Angeles had more size and rebounding than Miami and got swept. Adebayo is the likely candidate to get the most minutes on Jokic, and I certainly don’t expect that to be a wash. Adebayo certainly has more speed and is among the best in transition defense, but his size will be a factor when it comes to defending Jokic individually, rebounding against him, and affecting his passing angles. I have my doubts in Miami’s ability to successfully defend Jokic when Adebayo is their tallest player, so it will require more of a collective effort. Love is a major x-factor mostly because he will be needed this series since he’s known for his rebounding and has shown defensive chops historically in the playoffs. The size advantage that Denver has over Miami will likely be an on-going series issue especially if Miami ever decides to go small. No matter how you look at it, Jokic, Gordon, or Porter Jr. are going to have some combination of a size advantage, and that makes stopping their offense an even harder task. Denver makes opposing defenses pay for being smaller or switching smaller players onto their frontline.
Oh, and zone defense will likely not work on Denver. Spoelstra may mix it in bits and pieces, but Jokic is too tall and talented to be susceptible to a zone defense. In fact, Denver’s offense may even be more efficient in a zone than man-to-man. The defensive scheme that’s helped Miami this far won’t work, so they’ll primarily have to depend on man-to-man defense. When you observe these rosters side by side, that is a scary proposition if you’re Miami.
Miami may have a better chance defending Murray/Jokic together than most teams. Butler/Adebayo has been one of the better two-man defensive combinations in the last few years. They’re long, decently athletic, and tough. I am curious to see how Denver plays into Miami’s physicality overall. This series may involve the toughest coverage Murray will face. Even if it’s not Butler most of the game, Spoelstra has found a way to at least slow down premiere guards like Brunson by creating defensive schemes that sniff out most player’s habits. Murray can still matchup hunt someone like Robinson or Vincent or force more switches from Miami’s guards onto one of Denver’s taller players if Jokic isn’t involved. Any success from Murray whether it’s scoring or forcing switches will put Denver that much over the hump offensively, because I can envision Murray struggling from excellent scheming, but not Jokic, however.
If Miami can’t limit Denver’s offense, can it keep up with it? Much of Miami’s offense is Butler matchup hunting. We saw LeBron try this and even become successful for a game or two, but Los Angeles still couldn’t keep up with Denver’s offense. Butler compared to LeBron might be a tad better today since he’s younger but based on the downward trend of Butler’s offensive efficiency since the first round, I’m not inclined to believe he can play Jokic to a draw… which is what it would require for Miami to keep up with Denver in the case that their offense couldn’t be limited.
Miami’s shooters have been excellent in the playoffs, and that may be more of the x-factor than Butler himself. I guarantee Malone is considering staying home on everyone and forcing Butler and Adebayo to beat them one-on-one for 48 minutes. That’s certainly not a winning proposition for a team that depends on threes as much as Miami because without hot shooting, their offense is garbage. Vincent, Martin, Struss, and Lowry can get hot, but how much could they generate on their own? Miami’s only real chance in winning the series is to get a consistent second and/or third offensive explosion from some combination of Butler/Adebayo/role-player. Butler and Adebayo may be able to find consistent scoring in the same game, but they will need a third person to play off them.
You could say I strongly favor Denver, but you should never feel comfortable betting against Miami since they continue to defy statistics round after round. There is a world Miami where wins, and they deserve consideration for taking down two teams who were contenders. I feel that there are enough reasons for Denver to not worry. Their size advantage will be hard to overcome from a team smaller than Los Angeles, and the lack of zone defense means the talent gap between these two teams will become that much more prominent since man-to-man defense is more likely. I don’t truly believe player by player, inch by inch, that Miami has enough schemes to take this away from Denver with less intangibles. If I'm wrong yet again, well, everybody's eating an L anyway. Either way, whoever wins, history will be made, and team play will be rewarded.
Denver wins if: Their offense can’t be stopped. Jokic destroys the zone, destroys anyone defending him, and dominates the glass. Miami’s lack of size finally is a factor in a series. Miami’s role-players cool off and can’t create on their own.
Miami wins if: Spoelstra comes up with a scheme no one saw coming that consistently works. Adebayo and Butler are strong defensively. Love makes a huge impact defending Jokic, rebounding, and making shots. Denver’s half-court offense is finally stymied and Miami’s roleplayers find a Denver player like Murray or Jokic to attack successfully.
Denver in six.