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A First Look at the NBA Finals Matchup Between the Nuggets and Heat

Will Miami be able to slow down Nikola Jokic? Will Denver be able to cool off the Heat? The NBA Finals are set, and we’re breaking down the most pressing matchup questions each team will have to answer.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It might not be the most glamorous matchup or the most laden with history, and it’s certainly not the most predictable—but the Denver Nuggets vs. the Miami Heat is the most deserved outcome for the 2023 NBA playoffs. The Nuggets have the best record (12-3) while the Heat have the two best series wins (beating the top-seeded Bucks and second-seeded Celtics); neither team has trailed at any point in any series; they rank first and second in the playoffs in net rating.

Whichever team continues that run of success through the Finals will make history: either Jimmy Butler’s Heat, as the first no. 8 seed ever to win a title, or Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets, with the franchise’s first championship.

It’s difficult to predict how this matchup might unfold from the finalists’ two regular-season meetings. In December, the Nuggets beat the Heat 124-119 in Denver, as the home team made 61 percent of its 3-point attempts and Bones Hyland, Vlatko Cancar, Haywood Highsmith, and Orlando Robinson played big minutes. And in February, the Nuggets won 112-108 in Miami, as Cancar started, Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon sat, and Ish Smith, Thomas Bryant, Highsmith, and Jamaree Bouyea played a bunch off the bench.

But it’s worth noting that the Nuggets are 9-1 against the Heat over the past five seasons, with the only loss coming in their first game in the Orlando bubble in August 2020. And we can still draw some conclusions, from both this season’s meetings and the teams’ broader performance in the regular season and playoffs. So what are the chief nuts that each team will try to crack once the Finals begin on June 1, and what should fans look for when that date arrives?

When Denver’s on Offense

Can Miami slow down Nikola Jokic? No defense has yet answered this question in the affirmative this year. Opponents in the regular season couldn’t slow down Jokic. The Timberwolves in the first round couldn’t slow down Jokic. The Suns in the second round couldn’t slow down Jokic. And the Lakers in the conference finals couldn’t slow down Jokic, either.

The Western Conference finals MVP is averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 10.3 assists over Denver’s playoff run. He’s collected a playoff-record eight triple-doubles in 15 games, made 47 percent (!) of his 3-pointers, and pushed the pace at every opportunity, to better initiate Denver’s electric offense.

That offense has improved its efficiency each round, even as the competition has grown fiercer and the lights theoretically brighter for a group of players without much playoff experience.

Nuggets Points Per 100 Possessions

Season Segment Offensive Rating
Season Segment Offensive Rating
Regular Season 116.8
First Round 117.2
Second Round 120.0
Conference Finals 122.3

And now, after the Lakers—who boasted the best defense in the playoffs until the conference finals—failed to stymie that attack, it’s time for Miami, fresh off turning Boston’s second-ranked regular-season offense into a pile of mush, to give it a try.

Bam Adebayo will take the Jokic assignment and—based on the Heat’s regular-season approach to defending the two-time MVP—stay on him as much as possible. Miami has a reputation as a switching team, and true to form, Adebayo defended the second-most picks with switches in this regular season, behind only Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton. But not against Jokic.

The Heat switched on just 8 percent of screens that Jokic set against them this season, according to Second Spectrum—their lowest percentage against any of the top 50 screeners against them. Miami’s average switch rate against that group was 28 percent.

The Heat also don’t want to engage Jokic’s passing chops by helping Adebayo, and thus leaving other Nuggets open on the perimeter. The Heat didn’t blitz a Jokic screen once in the regular season, and while Jokic recorded 20 post-ups against them, the Heat sent a hard double at him just once, according to Second Spectrum (probably because the much-smaller Bouyea was the main defender on that play, rather than Adebayo).

Adebayo is strong enough to make Jokic work one on one, and agile enough to get around the big Serbian to intercept lackadaisical entry passes. But defending Jokic is a tall task for anyone, even a four-time All-Defense honoree; Jokic’s feints and fakes and twirls were enough to beat Adebayo for numerous buckets near the rim.

In the conference finals, the Lakers found some success defending Jokic with a power forward in Rui Hachimura, while slotting Anthony Davis on Aaron Gordon to let him roam and help at the rim. But Miami has a moribund big man rotation aside from Adebayo—neither Kevin Love nor Cody Zeller played at all in their Game 7 win over the Celtics—and wouldn’t seem to have the right personnel to attempt that strategy.

Jokic also complicates Miami’s typical plan to sprinkle in zone schemes. In the regular season, Erik Spoelstra’s team used zone defenses more frequently than any other in the tracking era, and Spo has pulled it out of his toolbox in each playoff round thus far. Miami’s zone was a crucial wrinkle in its upset wins over the Bucks and Celtics, who each scored at a much lesser clip against the zone than against Miami’s half-court man-to-man defense.

Half-Court Points Per Possession Against Heat Defense

Team Vs. Man Vs. Zone
Team Vs. Man Vs. Zone
Bucks 1.14 0.95
Celtics 1.16 0.90

But anyone who’s played rec basketball knows that the easiest way to beat a zone is to place a skilled big man at the free throw line and surround him with shooters—and the Nuggets might have the best-suited NBA roster to meet those demands.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Nuggets have scored a robust 1.21 points per possession against zone defenses this season—the second-best mark in the league, according to Second Spectrum. Against Miami’s zone specifically, they scored 15 points on nine possessions when Jokic was in the game. This simple entry-pass-to-kickout sequence is just too easy.

Outside of how to stop Jokic, the main question when Denver has the ball is who will guard Jamal Murray; in the regular season, Murray played the Heat just once, and Highsmith—who’s mostly out of the playoff rotation—was their primary defender on him. Presumably, the Heat will use a mix of Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin on Murray, just as they did against the Knicks’ Jalen Brunson in the second round.

Yet Murray is the most dynamic point guard the Heat have faced in the playoffs, and unlike Brunson, he’s not even the best offensive player on his team. Don’t be surprised if the Heat stick Butler on Murray for key stretches, to better navigate the Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll dance. And then don’t be surprised if the Heat struggle to stop them, anyway, or if mixing up matchups allows a role player like Michael Porter Jr. to get hot with open looks from deep. At full strength, Denver’s offense is just that good.

When Miami’s on Offense

The Nuggets have the postseason’s best offense largely because they generate the best shots; their overall shot quality, based on factors like location and shooter skill, is no. 1 in the playoffs, according to Second Spectrum. But the Heat are tied for third in offensive efficiency this postseason because of their shot-making. Miami’s shot quality ranks 15th among 16 playoff teams—but it’s overperformed that expectation more than any other team.

Despite ranking just 27th in the regular season with 34 percent accuracy on 3-pointers, the Heat—mostly without Tyler Herro, who broke his hand in the team’s playoff opener—have been, well, extra hot in the playoffs. They struggled from distance in the second round against the Knicks, but made 45 percent of their 3-pointers to upset the Bucks and 43 percent against the Celtics.

They’ve also benefited from the tremendous contributions of role players like Martin, Vincent, and a reinvigorated Duncan Robinson. Adebayo couldn’t buy a bucket for stretches of the conference finals—but the Heat survived that slump because of the depth beyond their stars, with Martin in particular excelling as a secondary scorer and creator.

Yet even with their hot streak, and even with their collection of undrafted contributors, Butler is the engine that makes Miami’s offense go—and Denver might have the best defender to force a stall.

Over the past three seasons, Butler has scored only 11.4 points per 100 plays when defended by Aaron Gordon, according to Second Spectrum. He’s at 17.9 points or better against every other defender he’s faced (minimum 100 matchups). Butler also has an effective field goal percentage of just 26 percent when Gordon guards him, versus 35 percent or better against everyone else.

To be fair, the 158 possessions that Gordon has against Butler in that span represent a fairly small sample, and they comprise Gordon’s defense against regular-season Butler, rather than against Playoff Jimmy. The latter presents a tougher challenge. But Gordon already has guarded Kevin Durant and LeBron James in consecutive playoff rounds; compared to those apex wings, even Playoff Jimmy might not look too fearsome.

The Heat will try to get Butler matched onto lesser defenders, and he will surely hunt Murray; the dot all the way to the right in that graph, at 37.3 points per 100 matchups, belongs to Derrick White, whom Butler barbecued for much of the conference finals. But the Nuggets will expect this plan of attack and can strategize workarounds. As the Western Conference finals progressed, for instance, they grew smarter about circumventing the Murray switch when LeBron hunted him, and Michael Malone’s rotation doesn’t contain any other minus defenders to pick on.

(To that end, has Jokic, long criticized for his defense, had a single lowlight-worthy defensive lapse in the entire postseason?)

In general, although the Nuggets were a middling defensive team in the regular season, they seem well-suited to defend Miami’s perimeter scorers. Aside from slotting Gordon on Butler, Denver can use Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown to put out other fires in the Heat’s lineup; they’re both plus perimeter defenders who can match up against the likes of Martin, Robinson, Max Strus, and Herro, if the injured guard returns to give Miami’s offense a creative boost in the Finals.

One intriguing action that Spoelstra could try is inverted pick-and-rolls with Adebayo as the ball handler, which generated some good looks against the Celtics and would force Jokic into an unusual position. The Nuggets center runs a lot of inverted pick-and-rolls himself, but he hasn’t faced many as a defender: Jokic has guarded only 31 total picks this season as the defender of the ball handler, according to Second Spectrum, versus 2,957 total picks as the defender of the screener.

Given the talent imbalance between these teams, and given the Nuggets’ home-court advantage, perfect home record this postseason, and rest advantage entering the Finals, the Heat will need to embrace a creative approach to pull off yet another upset. Of course the stats and film suggest the Nuggets are favored in this series; of course the Heat won’t care. They’re underdogs once again, but midnight hasn’t struck for this Cinderella outfit yet.