DENVER — As the Denver Nuggets enter their first NBA Finals in franchise history, a breakdown of their matchup against the Miami Heat:
Who has the edge?
— Guards: Maybe Nikola Jokic has inadvertently stolen some of Jamal Murray’s shine, but Denver’s combo guard has been almost unstoppable throughout Denver’s historic playoff run. Far from a bubble phenomenon, Murray’s averaging 27.7 points per game in the playoffs, which is, gasp, more than he averaged when the Nuggets were sequestered in Orlando. The Lakers didn’t have an answer for him when he filleted their backcourt, and outside of Heat star Jimmy Butler, there are no obvious defensive matchups for Murray. Gabe Vincent and Max Strus are both scrappy guards, each capable and willing to shoot from outside. The Heat is a team made up of more than the sum of its parts, but Denver’s got a significant advantage in the backcourt. Edge: Nuggets.
— Wings: Don’t underestimate Butler, the two-way wing who thrives in the face of doubt. The unquestioned leader of the Heat, Butler is a menace inside the arc, getting downhill and drawing fouls. He’s also the type of competitor who you’ll have to stomp out, twice, before you know you can turn your back. Aaron Gordon will draw the assignment, adding to a murderer’s row of wings he’s had to stymie. Imagine having to stop Kevin Durant and LeBron James, only to be rewarded with Butler. That’s what Gordon’s looking at. Caleb Martin erupted in the conference finals and had a plausible case as the series’ MVP. Expect Denver’s best perimeter defender, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to try and disrupt his rhythm from 3-point range. Michael Porter Jr.’s going to have a significant advantage over his matchup in terms of size and length. Porter’s 3-point shooting could also zap Miami’s zone. Expect a heavy emphasis on crashing the glass, from Porter and Gordon, given the zone’s vulnerabilities. Edge: Even.
— Big men: Bam Adebayo has the right strength and athleticism to deal with Jokic, but does he have the stamina? Anthony Davis didn’t. Scoff all you want, but Jokic is in elite condition. Capable of clearing the defensive glass and kick-starting a break the other way, Jokic is at the heart of Denver’s transition offense. It’s one of the preeminent battlegrounds of the series. And if Adebayo is already giving up a few inches to Jokic down low, the Heat better be careful he doesn’t get into foul trouble. There’s a steep drop-off in talent beyond him in the depth chart. Will Miami single cover Jokic or throw double-teams at him? Like a junk ball pitcher, the Heat will toss the kitchen sink at Jokic, varying their looks throughout the series. It might not matter. Edge: Nuggets
— Bench: The Nuggets are expecting Tyler Herro to return sometime in the middle of the series from a broken hand. He’s a sparkplug scorer who can catch fire off the bench. Beyond that, both Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love are battle-tested, each having played in the Finals before. Duncan Robinson’s 3-point proficiency can turn a game quickly. Denver’s best counter, for most of Miami’s depth, is Bruce Brown. He’ll no doubt see some time on Butler, or whichever Heat starter staggers with its second unit. Does Christian Braun get back in the rotation after sitting Game 4 vs. the Lakers? How much production can Denver expect out of Jeff Green? Nuggets coach Michael Malone said it’s the Finals, and everything is on the table. Might there be some surprise minutes looming on Denver’s bench? Edge: Even.
— Coaching: Erik Spoelstra is the best coach in the NBA never to win Coach of the Year, and he might not even need that caveat. He might just be the best. Spoelstra’s teams are consistently competitive regardless of who’s on the roster. It was also difficult to dismiss his bravado while promising they’d find a way to seize Game 7 in Boston last round. Malone has the benefit of the series’ best player, home-court advantage and a massive rest edge. His players lauded their practices leading into Game 1 in that he hammered their conditioning throughout the break. Malone has played out the disrespect card, and that should no longer be a talking point. The Nuggets deserve to be where they are and don’t need anymore motivational gimmicks. Now it’s about executing and making history. Edge: Heat.
Mike Singer, The Denver Post
Five things to watch
— 1. Experience matters: If the Heat hold one advantage over the Nuggets heading into their championship series, it’s simply the fact that Miami’s been here before. Not only is this the first NBA Finals trip for Denver, it’s the first for all but two Nuggets (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jeff Green). All told, Miami has 72 games of Finals experience compared to 10 for the Nuggets. But that comes with a couple of caveats: 1. More than half of those games (42) belong to reserves Udonis Haslem (27) and Kevin Love (15), neither of whom played a minute of the conference finals; and 2. Another significant chunk (24) is from Miami’s six-game series against the Lakers in the Orlando bubble.
— 2. Miami’s Herro: Microwave scorer Tyler Herro has been wearing a bucket hat instead of a uniform for most of the Heat’s postseason run after fracturing his hand in the team’s first-round series vs. Milwaukee. The timeline originally provided by the Heat indicates that last year’s Sixth Man of the Year could return to the lineup at some point in this series. But just how effective can Herro be after missing all but one of the Heat’s 18 playoff games? If it’s anywhere close to what he produced over 67 games during the regular season (20.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists), that would be a significant add to an already deep roster.
— 3. Rest vs. rust: After sweeping the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, the Nuggets will have gone nine days between when they last played May 22 in L.A. and tip-off of Game 1 inside Ball Arena. Will that extended rest be an advantage against a Heat team that only closed out the Celtics three days earlier? Or will it produce a sluggish start with the Nuggets needing time to shake off the rust? There is a precedent for this earlier in the postseason: The Nuggets had a week of rest while first-round opponent Minnesota grinded through a pair of play-in games prior to the first round. The Game 1 result? A 109-80 thrashing of the T-Wolves that was over by the end of the third quarter.
— 4. Bombs away: In a nod to the times, the last two teams standing in these NBA playoffs also happen to be the two best 3-point shooting squads in the postseason bracket. While the Heat comes in at No. 1 at 39.0% over 18 games, with an average of 13.1 3-pointers per game, the Nuggets are just a tick behind at No. 2 (38.6%, 12.1 3s/game). Could this series come down to who defends the 3-point line better? Both teams have been quite good in that regard, with the Nuggets giving up just 9.9 triples/game at a 34.2% clip this postseason, and the Heat 12.3 at 32.5%.
— 5. Mile High advantage: As befitting its status as just the second No. 8 seed to reach the NBA Finals since 1999, the Heat has been road warriors throughout its run to the NBA Finals, going 6-4 away from South Beach, including three wins at Boston in the Eastern Conference finals. There’s just one small problem with that: Miami has lost six straight at Ball Arena, with those losses coming by an average margin of 12.6 points. Throw in the games at Kaseya Center, and Miami is just 2-10 against Denver since the start of the 2017-18 season — a period that just so happens to coincide with the rise of the Nuggets as perennial playoff contenders. Throw in Denver’s perfect record (6-0) at Ball Arena during these playoffs, and the odds are clearly stacked against the Heat.
Matt Schubert, The Denver Post
— Mike Singer, Nuggets beat writer: The Nuggets have come too far to underestimate a No. 8 seed that’s standing in the way of their first title. While Michael Malone is correct that this series will be the hardest test they’ve ever had, Miami, on short rest, just doesn’t match up well against Denver. Nuggets in six.
— Mark Kiszla, sports columnist: The Heat are feisty, Erik Spoelstra is a coaching genius and Jimmy Buckets can win a Finals game on any given night by himself. But the Nuggets’ run to their first championship in franchise history is too powerful a story for ESPN naysayers or Miami to deny. Nuggets in six.
— Sean Keeler, sports columnist: Jimmy Butler is magic. He’s also 5-7 over his last 12 games vs. Denver, head-to-head, and 1-3 as a member of the Heat. Bam Adebayo is 2-10 over his last 12 tussles with the Western champs. You get the drill. Nuggets in six.
— Bennett Durando, sports reporter: I was ready to cast my Celtics-in-seven pick Monday night, haunted by memories of a 2004 St. Louis baseball team that encountered a destiny-bound Boston squad fresh off a 3-0 comeback. But hey, we don’t have to touch that topic now. The South Beach waters clearly harness dark magic, but I see no way Miami matches up. Nuggets in five.
— Ryan McFadden, sports reporter: Miami’s performance in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals showed the Heat have something left in the tank after an exhausting series against the Celtics. But that will not be enough to stop the Nuggets, who are hungry and rested. Plus, no team has yet to solve Nikola Jokic in the postseason. Nuggets in five.
— Matt Schubert, sports editor: Fear Jimmy Buckets’ relentless confidence. Tremble at Coach Spo’s big basketball brain. Quake at the undeniable force that is Heat Culture. Then just give the basketball to the best player on the planet (aka The Joker) and watch him slice it all into little bits. Nuggets in five.