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Three biggest questions ahead of the Heat-Nuggets NBA Finals
Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets tips off at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.
Imagine if I were to tell (most of) you two months ago that the Miami Heat would be playing basketball in June — your instant reactions would likely be along the lines of, “Did Summer League start early this year?” or “Is there a throwback Heat game on NBA TV right now?”
No, and no. It’s much better than that.
In one of the most improbable playoff runs in NBA History (at least to us outsiders), the No. 8-seeded Heat is in the 2023 NBA Finals and will square off against the top-seeded Denver Nuggets. Game 1 will be Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC inside Ball Arena.
May the games begin, but first, let’s hop into my biggest three questions heading into the series.
1. Can Miami keep up with Denver offensively?
I feel like a broken record when I bring up how bad the Heat offense was in the regular season, so I won’t (yet). But it’s worth mentioning that Denver’s offense has been the most efficient in the NBA this postseason. It’s scoring 119.7 points per 100 possessions, north of three points greater than the next-best squad (Clippers — 116.3), and are led by the two-time MVP in Nikola Jokic.
Jokic has been the best player these playoffs, tallying 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists on 53.8 percent shooting, including 47.4 from 3-point range and 78.4 percent from the free-throw line. The 7-footer is the best facilitator in the sport and is capable of making any conceivable shot at any point in the shot clock.
This series will be the battle between the two best 3-point shooting teams this postseason — Miami placing atop the league at 39.0 percent (34.9 3PA per 100) while Denver trails at 38.6 percent (32.3 3PA per 100); the Nuggets and Heat rank first and fourth, respectively, in true-shooting percentage and third and five in effective field goal percentage.
Denver also sports the lowest turnover percentage (11.7 TOV%), best assist-to-turnover ratio (2.3) and the fifth-highest offensive-rebounding percentage (30.2%). The Nuggets are a machine, and if Miami can’t keep up, it’ll be in big trouble.
2. Can Bam Adebayo, Heat capitalize in the short roll?
If Miami wants to move Jokic around in space defensively, he’s his best when he defends at the level of the screen in the pick-and-roll.
No, that doesn’t mean he’ll flat-out blitz, but he’ll pursue and crowd the ballhandler with active feet and hands alongside the original point-of-attack defender. This is where star center Bam Adebayo comes into play.
The Nuggets have improved with their tags and movement along its back line, relative to the start of the season, but the Heat could still run into plenty of 4-on-3 and 3-on-2 situations on the weak side with Adebayo in the short-roll.
His decision-making in those scenarios will be key. If an extra defender tags from the nail, he’s improved at finding the open players for promising looks.
Depending on who’s one or two passes away, there will be open looks. As I previously mentioned, the Heat have been the NBA’s best 3-point shooting team these playoffs. But as we’ve seen so many times, it’s a make-or-miss league.
If Miami, the fourth-worst long-range shooting team during the regular season, knocks down their looks, they should be fine; make Denver adjust their screen coverages first.
If not, well this could be a long — or short, depending on how you want to look at it — series.
Conversely, similar to the Bucks series, Adebayo should get looks from the short mid-range/floater area. The Nuggets will forgo these shots; in the regular season, opponents took 22.2 percent of their looks from the short mid-range (~4-14 ft.), the 13th-highest rate. Though teams only converted such shots a 41.1 percent clip, the fifth-worst leaguewide, per Cleaning The Glass.
In the playoffs, teams have taken 28.8 percent of their shots (5th-most) within that range against Denver, knocking it down at a 48.3 percent clip (6th-highest).
Funny enough, among the 29 others that played Denver, Miami took the highest percentage of their shots from the SMR (34.0%), making 45.9 percent of them (10th).
That’s especially key to Adebayo.
In the regular season, he lived in the short mid-range, taking 49 percent of his shots in the short mid-range, which ranked in the 99th percentile amongst other bigs; he sunk 47 percent of those attempts (64th percentile).
So don’t be surprised, for better or worse, he gets a steady dose of attempts from that range throughout this series — especially when he’s operating in the short roll.
3. How does Miami limit Denver’s production outside of Nikola Jokic?
While I previously mentioned Jokic and how good he’s been this postseason, he’s flanked by one of the best-supporting casts in the NBA, led by Jamal Murray.
Murray’s been an elite offensive player these playoffs, averaging 27.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists. He’s shooting 48.0 percent, but is canning 39.8 percent of his 3s on 7.9 triple tries per game.
Michael Porter Jr. can rise up over any player in basketball and is averaging 14.6 points (plus 8.0 rebounds) on 45.5/40.8/81.0 shooting splits; Aaron Gordon is a phenomenal cutter and baseline roamer, averaging 13.0 points on 57.1 percent true-shooting.
Not to mention Bruce Brown, a zone-killer, who’s posting 12.2 points on 62.4 percent true-shooting (with good defense) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who’s averaging 11.7 points while having developed into 1.) one of the best spot-up shooters in the sport 2.) a very capable 2-3 level scorer and 3.) a very good defender.
Defensively, the Nuggets can throw multiple bodies — KCP, Gordon and Brown, to name a few — at Butler, but where this team really separates itself is offensively because of synergy and how many different options it has. Jokic will get his, no matter how hard Adebayo makes it on him because he’s arguably the best player in the league.
But if Miami can somehow limit the supporting cast’s production, the Heat will have a much better chance to win this series.
Other pressing/noteworthy questions:
1. How will rest, or lack thereof, affect Miami this series?
2. Can Jimmy Butler win the Aaron Gordon matchup?
3. Will Miami’s defense be able to force enough turnovers?
4. How will Erik Spoelstra attack the non-Jokic minutes?
5. Conversely, how will he handle the non-Bam minutes?