The Nuggets and Heat will meet for Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Denver on Thursday. The Nuggets, a 53-win team during the regular season, have mowed down the opposition en route to the first Finals appearance in franchise history. Miami, the No. 8 seed that survived an elimination game in the play-in tournament to advance, will play in its second Finals in the last four years.
Sports Illustrated asked a veteran NBA coach to weigh in on some of the key questions in this series.
SI: Which Finals team have you been more impressed by?
Scout’s Take: I’m split. I’m most impressed by how Denver has played, but the more impressive of the two being there is Miami, if that makes sense. I think Denver’s played the best of any of the teams in the playoffs—from either conference. From the second round on, I thought they looked the sharpest. On both ends, but especially on the offensive end. Miami, just by getting through Milwaukee and Boston, who I thought were the two best teams in the NBA, was pretty impressive. Miami is a great story. Denver is a great team.
SI: What is the key for Denver?
Scout’s Take: The biggest thing is how they handle Miami’s physicality on the offensive end. Because Miami’s going to be much more physical. They’re going to try to dictate things more. They’re going to try to be up and into Denver more than any of the other teams they played. They’re not going to let Nikola Jokić casually dribble around and play freely in the way that some other teams allowed him to do. Denver has to be ready for that.
The other thing is how many easy baskets can they get at the rim? Miami’s going to try to cut out the rim. So, if they can get there—whether it’s by the cutting, the driving, Jokić inside or the different ways that he gets there; Jamal Murray, the offensive rebounding, transition—that to me is the biggest thing. They can’t be just a jump shooting team. That’s what the Heat want.
SI: On the flip side, what is the key for Miami?
Scout’s Take: The three-point line is a big one. That was the big thing in their previous series. In their wins they could get off from three. The competitiveness and the toughness and all that was there. With Miami it always will be. And Jimmy Butler having a couple of big games was big. But the three-point line is how their role players can impact the game. So if they can bank on making threes that really helps them.
This move from Caleb is too nice 😮💨 pic.twitter.com/kyTv8Owszi— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) May 30, 2023
It’s wild, they weren’t winning games this way during the regular season. One thing that’s changed is Duncan Robinson being in the lineup; that ups their three-point percentage and attempts. Caleb Martin playing out of his mind is a big factor. Can he do that again? He’s going to have to. Kyle Lowry looks like a different guy. Lowry is back to being Mr. Raptor, the way he was before. He looked like a shell of himself all year. He was heavy, didn’t play great, and now he’s back to looking like he’s got a lot of the old push it in transition.
SI: How do you think Miami will handle Jokić?
Scout’s Take: I think they’re going to apply ball pressure more with them than the other teams have. They’re going to put their bodies on him in ways that other teams have not. It won’t be the same game plan, but look at how they played Joel Embiid last year. Embiid had to constantly move through bodies to get to where he wanted to go. Jokić is going to have to do the same thing. They are not just going to run freely and let him go where he wants.
And I think they’ll make him think. They will mix coverages on them, whether it’s single coverage, whether it’s double-teaming him on the dribble, double-teaming him on the catch, double-teaming him when he gets to the paint. And they’ll try to use that zone to discourage him from getting the ball in the middle of the floor. They were always a very, very effective team at what a lot of people used to call open dig to blitz; basically sit in a shrink on the post-up and once the ball touches the landline go trap and be really aggressive with it. They’re always good at that. I would think they’ll mix a little bit of that in, as well as making his cut, his catches, and touches, and the way he wants to play, difficult.
SI: Is there a wild card for Denver?
Scout’s Take: I would say the Aaron Gordon factor is a really interesting one. Because I think he has the ability to guard Butler with his size and give him resistance. Offensively, can he make threes? Can he impact the game on the offensive boards? I think he’s a huge, huge x-factor for them, because he’s going to be a primary guy on Butler.
SI: What is Miami’s x-factor?
Scout’s Take: Again, to me for them it’s Lowry. I thought his impact against Milwaukee, New York and the last series against Boston was awesome. It was really, really high. He did a ton of the little things. It’s like, Oh, this is why this guy’s considered a winner—to help the rebounding, the deflections, the pushing the ball in transition to getting the ball down the floor before the defense was set, banging home threes, having a few “big games.” To me, he’s a huge, huge piece for them.
Because I think all their other guys are interchangeable. They can play or not play. Max Strus and Robinson. They move Kevin Love in and out. Haywood Highsmith will play a few minutes and then not play. Gabe Vincent, they can take him out. But Lowry to me is the one guy. If he’s really good, that helps them a ton.
SI: Who will win the series?
Scout’s Take: I think Denver in six games. The Nuggets’ offense to me just seems like it’s going to be really sharp. I think if you’re Miami, you hope that you can go in there and steal the first game. I think the altitude impacts what they will try to do a ton just in general, but when you’re there for a few days, that’s when it can impact you a little bit more if you’re not taking care of yourself the right way. And Denver’s had more than a week off. Miami has to try to go get Game 1, get a split, go back home, get a split, and then see if they can put some doubt in Denver. But it’s going to be really hard. Denver is the best team I’ve seen all postseason.