The series gets started on Thursday night in Denver, and it’s sure to be an exciting best-of-seven battle. It’s Denver’s first trip to the Finals in franchise history while Miami is making its seventh appearance in the final round.
While this matchup might not be the most exciting for some fans across the league, it still features two of the league’s best players (Nikola Jokic and Jimmy Butler) as well as two of the league’s best coaches (Michael Malone and Erik Spoelstra).
Role players on both teams have also stepped up in major ways throughout the 2023 playoffs and will undoubtedly be called upon to make some more contributions.
The series is set to get underway on Thursday night in Denver. Here’s a breakdown of keys to success for both teams, one X factor for each team as well as series predictions from two of our NBA experts.
3 keys to success for the Miami Heat
1. Neutralize Jamal Murray and Nuggets role players
David Akerman: Jokic has been feasting all throughout the playoffs, and it doesn’t seem all that likely that the Heat will be able to really slow him down. Bam Adebayo is one of the best defenders in the league, but he might not be able to really contain Jokic from putting up crazy numbers.
Therefore, the Heat should focus on stopping Jamal Murray and Denver’s role players. Murray is continuing to cement himself as one of the league’s best playoff performers, recording 27.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game this postseason on 48.0 percent shooting from the field and 39.8 percent shooting from deep.
Supporting players like Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have all done very well in the playoffs. Murray, Caldwell-Pope, Porter and Gordon are all shooting at least 35.1 percent from deep, so it’ll be important for the Heat to close out well on their shots.
Miami can’t allow for Denver’s role players to get hot in the same way Derrick White, Marcus Smart and Grant Williams did in the Eastern Conference Finals. That would be asking for disaster from the get-go.
The Heat will need to let Adebayo go one on one against Jokic and not send any double teams. Doubling Jokic would allow him to pick apart the defense and find open shooters for good looks. In the playoffs, Denver is shooting 37.9 percent from deep on wide open 3-pointers (closest defender six or more feet away), 40.0 percent on open 3-pointers (closest defender between four to six feet away) and 37.6 percent on tight 3-pointers (closest defender between two to four feet away).
2. Run the offense through Bam Adebayo
DA: Adebayo had plenty of rough moments against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, but he’s still more than capable of running the offense.
Alongside Jokic, the University of Kentucky product is one of the league’s best passing big men, and he’s shown he can be the lead ball-handler for the Heat on multiple occasions.
Getting the offense to run through Adebayo would likely force Jokic away from the basket and allow the Heat for some more offensive rebounding opportunities. Miami might not get many of those as it is considerably smaller than Denver, which makes it that much more important to capitalize on any chances that do arise.
Another interesting possibility about having Adebayo run the offense would be running inverted pick-and-rolls with the former first-round pick as the ball-handler. Adebayo is a phenomenal screener (4.4 screen assists per game in the regular season and 5.6 per contest in the playoffs) and does wonders in that role, but one has to imagine that getting Jokic in uncomfortable situations on defense would be a plus for the Heat.
A Butler-Adebayo pick-and-roll where Jokic has to then switch onto Butler might spell lots of trouble for Denver. Butler would be able to take advantage of the mismatch and potentially even get Jokic in foul trouble. This postseason, Denver’s offensive rating is 123.8 with Jokic on the court and 109.1 with him off of it.
3. Throw the first punch
DA: Miami has successfully done this in each of its three playoffs series this season and will need to do it once again on Thursday night.
While the rest the Nuggets have enjoyed since beating the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals is surely nice, they might find themselves a bit rusty to start things off. That’s where Miami would need to take advantage, as it currently is in a nice rhythm.
Grabbing a Game 1 win at Ball Arena, where the Nuggets haven’t lost all postseason, might leave the Nuggets shell-shocked. Even if Miami were to lose Game 2 after stealing Game 1, that should still be considered a success. Stealing home-court advantage from one of the league’s best home teams would be huge for the Heat’s chances in this series.
A 1-1 split or 2-0 lead would have Heat fans absolutely ready to rock for Games 3 and 4 at Kaseya Center in less than a week. Throwing the first punch has helped the Heat all playoffs long, and they will need to do it just one more time.
3 keys to success for the Denver Nuggets
1. When the Heat defense (literally) gives an inch, take a mile
Jason Simpson: When it comes to postseason basketball, we hear so much talk about the “others” — a team’s non-stars, if you will — stepping up and making a difference. Denver’s “others” are going to have a huge hand in determining the outcome of the 2023 NBA Finals.
When defenses collapse to bring help on Jokic and Murray, which is often, it leaves space for players like Porter, Caldwell-Pope and even Gordon to do damage from beyond the arc. If you cheat off those guys and they take advantage by making their 3-pointers, good luck. And they have been.
Porter is shooting 44.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s this postseason. Caldwell-Pope is at 42.9 percent. Gordon, for his part, is at 30.4 percent, which is just high enough to make you think twice about leaving him.
Ultimately, the Heat are going to have to pick their poison if Denver’s role players are making their shots.
This entire area is one of the biggest reasons why the Nuggets have been so dangerous throughout the postseason, and they need the trend to continue against the Heat.
2. Beat Miami at its own game in the fourth quarter
JS: The Heat have been a phenomenal fourth-quarter squad in the 2023 playoffs. Miami has maintained a fourth-quarter net rating of 16.3 during its playoff run, which ranks first among all 16 teams that made the bracket this year.
But the Nuggets aren’t far behind. Denver’s fourth-quarter net rating in the 2023 playoffs is 10.8, which ranks second to the Heat. Both of these teams excel when it’s closing time.
Denver has a handful of players who have been ridiculously efficient in the fourth quarter of playoff games this year, like Brown (true shooting percentage of 74.4 in such situations), Porter (73.3) and Murray (70.1).
Can that continue? If so, a Heat team that has been so successful in the fourth quarter this postseason is going to be severely tested by the Nuggets.
Look for this particular theme to fluctuate throughout the series. We may get treated to some fourth-quarter battles, and whichever team wins more of them may ultimately win the series.
3. Get Bam Adebayo into foul trouble
JS: It’s going to be a long couple of weeks for Adebayo as he takes on the impossible task of guarding Jokic.
By the same token, it’s going to be a very long couple of weeks for the Heat (or more appropriately, maybe a very short NBA Finals) if Adebayo gets into foul trouble.
Adebayo is Miami’s best shot to make Jokic look human. Beyond the 25-year-old, the Heat don’t have a whole lot of other options in that regard.
That’s why the idea of Adebayo getting into foul trouble is a nightmare for Miami and dream for Denver.
The Heat star certainly isn’t immune to foul trouble. On four occasions in the 2023 playoffs, he’s reached at least five fouls, including one game in the first round that he fouled out of.
Adebayo is a key piece of the Heat’s puzzle and needs to be on the floor for them. If the Nuggets can force him to the bench, it’s going to put Miami in a major hole.
Miami’s X factor: Gabe Vincent
DA: I first feel like bragging a bit: I think it’s an understatement to write that I hit the nail on the head in picking Caleb Martin as the Heat’s X factor against the Celtics. He nearly won Eastern Conference Finals MVP after averaging 19.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game on 60.2 percent shooting from the field and 48.9 percent shooting from deep.
It’ll be interesting to see if my pick for Miami’s X factor this series, Vincent, has the same type of success against the Nuggets.
Vincent has been huge for the Heat in the playoffs, recording 13.1 points and 3.9 assists per game on 39.0 percent shooting from beyond the arc. He had his best series yet against the Celtics, putting up 15.8 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per match while connecting on 48.5 percent of his attempts from the field and 51.6 percent of his 3-pointers.
He’ll need to produce more of the same in order to take away some of the pressure off of Butler, Adebayo and Martin. Butler will naturally command lots of attention, and the Nuggets will surely make Martin a focal point on defense after his performance against the Celtics.
As a pesky defender who has no problem taking on bigger opponents, Vincent might see some time guarding Murray throughout the series. Murray is 6-foot-4 while Vincent is 6-foot-2. The University of California, Santa Barbara product has plenty of experience guarding players taller and bigger than Murray, so that matchup shouldn’t be too much for him to handle.
The 26-year-old putting up the same types of numbers from the Celtics series while also containing Murray and others might just end up winning the Heat the 2023 NBA Finals.
Denver’s X factor: Michael Porter Jr.
JS: As mentioned, this series may very well come down to whether or not Denver’s role players hit their shots. They need to make the Heat pay — specifically from beyond the arc — whenever Miami leaves the door open for that to happen.
For the Nuggets, Porter is arguably the head of the snake in this key to the game. In the 2023 playoffs, he’s attempted catch-and-shoot 3s at a higher volume than anyone else on Denver’s roster. He’s averaging 5.1 such attempts per game.
He’s also taking 6.9 triples per game overall (regardless of shot type) while making 40.8 percent of them. As long as he keeps that percentage in efficient territory, the ROI (return on investment) regarding his 3-point attempts suggests that he should take as many as he wants.
But again, to stay specific, the big key here is the fact that players like Porter will need to punish the Heat if and when they bring help on Denver’s stars.
We know the 24-year-old and his teammates are entirely capable of doing just that because we’ve seen it all postseason long. If it continues, Denver could end up winning its first NBA title in franchise history.
DA: It really feels like it’s Butler’s time to win a ring with the Heat. He’s arguably never had a more perfect team suited to his abilities.
The Heat are once again underdogs in this series, but they won’t care about that. It’s the type of situation they thrive in and seemingly prefer to be in.
Denver is easily the best team that Miami has had to face this postseason and should prove to be the toughest challenge as well. Everything really points to the Nuggets beating the Heat pretty easily.
However, the Milwaukee Bucks were supposed to beat the Heat with ease. The New York Knicks were favored by many over the Heat, and everyone recalls the odds given to the Heat before the Eastern Conference Finals.
If I didn’t pick against the Heat last series, why would I pick against them now? It’s clearly their time to win their fourth title in franchise history.
I believe Butler is as motivated as ever to get his first ring and cement his place in basketball history. His teammates are undoubtedly just as hungry.
There’s many ways the series might turn out, but I’m taking the Heat in seven once again.
JS: Once again this postseason, Miami is in a series that it shouldn’t win. And once again, that may prove to mean absolutely nothing.
One NBA executive recently said the Heat simply need to be a “team of destiny” in order to win the series against Denver. Are we sure that they aren’t?
These guys do not care who’s in front of them. We saw it in the first round. We saw it in the second round. We saw it in the third round. And now, we’re running out of rounds.
But four wins still stand between the Heat and their first NBA title in a decade, and these four may prove to be the toughest yet. Denver is peaking at the perfect time and has the personnel to give Miami trouble.
These playoffs have shown that this is anyone’s series, but it still just doesn’t make sense to me to pick against the team that should win the thing. Maybe I’ll learn my lesson one day. For now, it’s Nuggets in six.