NBA Finals preview: Gear up for Nuggets vs. Heat

Published June 1, 2023, 10:28 AMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

This matchup between the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat is the NBA Finals series no one saw coming.

People who say an NBA Finals featuring the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat would be boring clearly don’t understand basketball. What’s not to love?

On one hand, there’s the eighth-seeded Heat. They battled their way from the brink of elimination in the play-in all the way to the finals. This is a team that simply refused to lose. They could have folded at any time during this run and people would have still given them their flowers. Instead, they stubbornly kept winning, shoving some big names out of the playoff picture. Do they have enough left in the tank to take down the biggest name standing in their way?

Led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets have proven to be the best team in the West. They knocked the twin bigs in the Twin Lakes, eliminated supposed contenders in the Phoenix Suns, and took care of business against the resurrected LA Lakers. All the work they’ve put into developing this current team and system that they have is finally paying off. They’re so close to their first championship. Can they continue to dominate all the way to the end? 

Most compelling storyline

There are so many storylines that make this series so juicy. There’s the fact that this is the first eighth seed versus one seed matchup since 1999. Then there’s the Heat with all their championship pedigree trying to add another notch to their belt while the Nuggets are trying to make history in their first finals appearance. Then there are all these interesting characters to unpack, guys like Jokic, Jimmy Butler, Jamal Murray, Bam Adebayo, Kevin Love, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Purely from a basketball point of view, the burning question is how will the Heat stop Nikola Jokic? He’s been an unsolvable problem for all the teams that the Nuggets have faced so far in the playoffs. Against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was content to play decoy and create for the rest of the team. He asserted himself more offensively against the Suns and the Lakers, taking over games when his team needed him the most.

Jokic has been averaging an absurd 29-13-10 line in the playoffs. He can hurt teams in so many ways. There’s just no singular defense that will work against someone like him.

Will Bam Adebayo’s activity and effort be enough to slow down the Joker? Jokic has found success against beasts in the paint like Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Ayton, and Anthony Davis. Is it fair to put 6’9” Adebayo on an island against Jokic and hope for the best?

There’s no doubt that Coach Erik Spoelstra is working on a game plan to counter Jokic. But he can’t get cute. His small-ball approach against the Boston Celtics won’t work. The Lakers tried that in the West Finals and got blasted in the paint by Jokic. 

The 2-3 Zone defense that he likes to throw out to clog the lane won’t be as successful this time around. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Julius Randle, or any of the Celtics don’t have the same back-to-the-basket game that Jokic has. Jokic can simply pick a side of the Zone and go to work.

Spoelstra will have to pull out something he hasn’t tried before. Given that Jokic has beaten the Heat twice this season, averaging 23 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists in both games, it’s clear that Miami hasn’t found success against him yet. Now, they’ll need to figure out a way to slow down Jokic four times if they hope to win the series.


With rotations shortening in the playoffs, everyone’s roles get magnified. Stars have to play better than their regular season selves while role players are expected to step into bigger shoes. That’s been the case with both teams. Several players have stepped up and have delivered signature moments that have helped their teams get crucial wins.

For the Nuggets, they’ve relied heavily on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown in the postseason. The stats aren’t eye-popping but the two have played their roles perfectly. They’ve defended the opposing team’s best wing players and have spaced the floor well on the other end of the floor. 

With Miami being a team reliant on wing players, Caldwell-Pope and Brown will have a lot on their hands defensively. They also can’t be slouches on offense to make their defenders expend energy on defense as well.

There’s no other example of players stepping up than the group of undrafted players on their roster, specifically Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin. These two played less than 50 games in the regular season and combined for a little more than 18 points per game. In the playoffs, they’ve played nearly every game and have upped their numbers to a combined 27 points per game. Zooming into the East Finals, Vincent averaged 15.8 points per game while Martin was putting up a little less than 20 in their seven-game series.

With Tyler Herro still out and Adebayo having his hands full against Jokic, Vincent and Martin will have to continue their torrid run in this series. Vincent has stepped nicely into the starting point guard role and has been a solid secondary shotmaker and creator. 

As for Martin, he was a vote away from winning the East Finals MVP. That’s how good he was against the Celtics. He was the team’s second-best player and he’ll need to bring that same bag against the top-seeded Nuggets.

Winning blueprint

For the Nuggets, it’s simple. Keep doing what they’re doing. They rode the Jokic Train all the way to the finals and they should continue to let him chug along.

As for the Heat, they have to keep generating good looks especially from beyond the arc. They’ve been the best shooting team in the playoffs so far, averaging 39 percent from 3-point land. In the East Finals, they’re scoring at a 43 percent rate from the outside. Those are ridiculous numbers, especially when things turn into a grind-it-out affair in the playoffs.

The Nuggets are an offensive juggernaut, putting up 121 points per 100 possessions. The Heat will need to squeeze out all the offense they can get from their roster to keep up with the Nuggets.


A lot of people have this pegged as a short series. But that’s what they said about the Miami-Milwaukee and the Miami-Boston series - look at how that turned out. The Heat are on an incredible run and they don’t look like they’re slowing down. Unfortunately for them, they’re up against a well-rested, and well-oiled machine in Denver. It looks like the clock has struck midnight for Miami’s Cinderella run.