The top-seeded Denver Nuggets are headed to their first NBA Finals in franchise history and will face the surprising eighth-seeded Miami Heat, who have surged back to the Finals via the play-in tournament.
The Nuggets, behind the leadership of two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, will look to win the franchise’s first title, while the Heat, behind the playoff excellence of Jimmy Butler, will look to claim their franchise’s fourth title after falling short in the 2020 Finals inside the Orlando bubble.
Denver has plenty of momentum after surging through LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers with a four-game sweep in the Western Conference finals.
Meanwhile, Miami was not expected to go this far at any point prior to the opening round of the playoffs, especially not after losing to the Atlanta Hawks in the first game of the play-in tournament. Since that loss, the Heat have gone 13-6 in the postseason, capped off by a Game 7 rout of the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
Now, the two teams will face off for a title, and our experts are breaking down the biggest questions ahead of one of the most surprising NBA Finals matchups in league history.
MORE: Finals schedule and news | Title odds
The Nuggets are rested … a little too rested?
By the time Game 1 tips off Thursday at Ball Arena, the Nuggets will have been off for 10 days, just the fourth time in the past two decades a team has gotten that long a break before the Finals. (The 2013 San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors in 2017 and 2019 also had 10-day breaks after sweeping.)
Because Boston was able to come back from a 3-0 deficit to force a Game 7, Denver will have seven more days of rest than Miami. Still, Nuggets coach Michael Malone isn’t convinced that’s an advantage.
“For us, my biggest concern is the rhythm but more importantly conditioning,” Malone told reporters Friday as the team returned to practice.
“You’re playing every other day for so long, and now all of a sudden you have an eight-, nine-, 10-day break, whatever it is. I wanted to make sure we got up and down, conditioned.”
Teams like Denver with at least a five-day rest advantage heading into the Finals have gone 10-6 (.625) in the opening game, but that might understate how well they’ve done.
When teams with that large a rest edge have been at home for Game 1 of the Finals, they’re 8-1 (.889) — far better than the overall .763 winning percentage for Game 1 hosts (58-18).
More importantly, teams with both home-court advantage and a rest edge of at least five days going in are 8-1 all-time in the Finals, with the only series loss coming by the 1998 Utah Jazz against the “Last Dance” Chicago Bulls. So there’s every reason to think rest will be a huge benefit for the Nuggets.
— Kevin Pelton
Will Jokic continue to feast? Probably
Not long after he collected his first Western Conference finals MVP trophy, Jokic said he doesn’t think about winning MVP trophies.
He is focused on lifting one piece of hardware, and that’s the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Jokic is four wins away from doing that and the only thing standing in his way is Butler and the Heat.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will have to find a way to do what Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, LeBron and Anthony Davis were unable to do — stop The Joker.
Trying to match wits with Jokic and slow him down is the greatest challenge in the NBA right now. Draymond Green told ESPN after the Warriors beat the Nuggets in the first round last year that “every possession was a chess match” and trying to outwit Jokic in the postseason is matched only by trying to beat LeBron in an NBA Finals. (And that was without having to deal with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. at Jokic’s side last year.)
Spoelstra might be in the midst of his best coaching job yet. But as the Lakers discovered after they temporarily slowed down Jokic by putting Rui Hachimura on the center to allow Davis to roam, finding a way to stop Jokic in a series might be next to impossible. Jokic is averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists with an NBA-record eight triple-doubles in the playoffs, six coming in his past eight games.
“We’ve seen all the adjustments,” Murray said when asked about the Nuggets adapting to the Hachimura move in Game 1 last round.
“We’ve seen the double from the baseline, the double from the top, the sign from a non-shooter to single coverage … We’ve seen every different type of mixture. We’ve seen [the LA Clippers] try to put Kawhi [Leonard] and [Paul George] to switch it — we’ve seen everything.”
— Ohm Youngmisuk
Miami’s keys: Keep Bam on the court, stay hot from deep
Aside from the well-earned attention that Butler, the Eastern Conference finals MVP, will draw, the biggest key for the Heat is keeping Bam Adebayo out of foul trouble. Jokic comes into this series as the most dominant player in the game, so it will be up to Adebayo to both try to limit him on the defensive end and provide some help for Butler offensively.
Cody Zeller and Kevin Love have provided solid postseason minutes for Spoelstra, but they don’t have Adebayo’s skill and consistency. If the Heat’s All-Star center gets into any kind of foul trouble, Jokic will become an even bigger problem.
Also, Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson need to keep hitting shots. Vincent went 11-for-14 from the field in Miami’s Game 3 rout of the Celtics, but Spoelstra has repeatedly praised his ability to play within himself and help the team in a variety of ways.
Martin came into Game 4 shooting 63.2% from the field and hasn’t been shaken by the gravity of the playoff stage, especially after dropping a combined 47 points in Games 6 and 7.
After slipping out of the rotation, Robinson has filled in nicely as an offensive weapon off the bench with Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo out — Robinson went a combined 13-for-20 during Games 2 and 3. Herro, who broke his right hand in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, could reappear at some point against the Nuggets.
— Nick Friedell