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2023 NBA Finals Preview: Nuggets vs. Heat

Will Nikola Jokic cement his place as an all-time great, or is Miami about to complete the greatest underdog story in NBA history?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Miami Heat Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Ah yes, it’s the finals we all anticipated: the one-seeded juggernaut Denver Nuggets with Nikola Jokic vs. ... the play-in Miami Heat with Nikola Jovic?

Not even LeBron James would claim he predicted this coming.

But that’s exactly what makes this matchup so intriguing. Outside of perhaps Jimmy Buckets, no one saw the Heat making a finals run. I did warn fans to not underestimate Miami just before the playoffs, but even that felt like a stretch considering my ultimate conclusion was that they shouldn’t be favored in any series.

This is truly unprecedented and there really isn’t one explanation which shows how the Heat have pulled this off, and they’ll now face their toughest test against the well-rested Nuggets.

So, will Miami be the first ever 8-seed to win the chip? Or is are the Nuggets destined to bring big ol’ Larry to Denver for the very first time?

Let’s find out.

Key takeaways from the first three rounds

The Heat have stolen every storyline, and rightfully so.

Sure, you can say that they faced a Bucks team with an injured Giannis, a Knicks team with only one reliable ballhandler, and a Celtics team led by a guy who can’t dribble and another who likely sent a second text to Kobe, but that doesn’t take away the fact that Miami badly outexecuted all of them.

However, execution isn’t enough to make a finals run, and the Heat just seemed to catch fire at the exact right moment, like a hockey goalie getting hot in the playoffs (fellow Floridian Sergei Bobrovsky sends his regards).

More specifically, Miami’s three-point shooting has leveled them up significantly. During the regular season, they were 27th in three-point percentage at just 34.8%, which has increased all the way to 38.5% so far in the playoffs. That latter mark is tied for second during the postseason only behind the... Denver Nuggets, who are launching fireballs and making 39.8% of all attempts from deep.

The difference, though, is that Denver also made 38.6% of their threes in the regular season, thus making it seem like their postseason success from deep is more sustainable. With that said, even with the small sample size, Miami’s current postseason three-point percentage seems much more indicative of their talent level than their regular season numbers. Remember, this is largely the same team that led the league in three-point accuracy last year at 38.6%, which is why the Heat’s current postseason numbers shouldn’t be seen as flukey.

On the defensive end, Miami has also experienced some opponent shooting luck. Milwaukee, New York, and Boston only shot 32.2% from deep against the Heat, which is far below the playoff average of 35.5%. We’ve talked a lot about the lack of control teams have in opponent three-point percentage, but with this Miami team, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Even when they play zone, every Heat player closes out to shooters hellaciously, and their rotations are always on point. So while the basketball gods have smiled down on South Beach, Miami deserves credit too for making it difficult for the opposition to get set and take shots in rhythm.

The bad news for the Heat, though, is that Denver isn’t reliant on threes even though they’re elite at making them — only 32.8% of the Nuggets’ shots have come from deep in the postseason, which is 3.3% less than average. Rather, Denver lives in the mid-range, as over 39% of Denver’s shots have come in that area, which is the second-highest mark amongst teams who made the playoffs and would’ve ranked second in the regular season too. They’re making those attempts at a 47% clip as well, which also ranks 3rd in the postseason.

Concerningly, opponents have made 49.9% of all their mid-rangers against Miami during the playoffs, which is dead last, and they were 30th in the regular season too at 46.9%. If the Heat want to be competitive in this series, they’ll need to find a way to stop Jokic and Murray from getting to their sweet spots around the elbow and the low post — something no team has managed to do both during the regular season and playoffs.

To add on to their uphill battle, Miami will also be at a significant disadvantage when it comes to rest. Denver will have had a full 10 days of rest prior to tipoff, while the Heat only had two days off with Boston almost turntabling them. That’s without mentioning the altitude, either.

With that in mind, there’s no doubt that the Nuggets will run at every opportunity possible. In the Lakers series, Jokic and co. pushed the pace whenever AD was behind the play, and they’ll surely do the same against Bam and Jimmy too.

Not only will this wear Miami out, but it’ll also give Denver free lanes to attack the rim, considering that Bam’s the only reliable big the Heat have at the moment.

Oh, and one last thing: rust has historically not played a factor for teams who’ve had long layoffs. According to Kevin Pelton on the Lowe Post, teams that have had home-court advantage and 5 or more days of rest going into the finals than their opponents are both 8-1 in game 1 and the series. The Heat, however, have obviously won all of their series so far, but also every game 1 on the road.

Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.

Big questions

Can Miami get away with playing zone?

Every time I see the Heat break out their zone, I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.

NBA players should be able to easily figure out how to exploit a defensive tactic that’s most commonly used at the high school level, so the success of Miami’s zone makes no sense — but then again, nothing about the Heat does.

Boston, in particular, had trouble against them, which goes all the way back to their ECF showdown in the 2020 bubble. In this past series, the Celtics often dumped the ball to Al Horford just below the nail to either iso him against Bam or hope to unlock an open part of the court that his teammates could attack.

The issue, though, was that Miami’s players always timed their doubles perfectly and swarmed the Celtics at the exact right moment to throw off their rhythm.

Boston did have more success breaking Miami’s zone in games 4-6, but they never truly figured out how to generate good looks consistently. To put things in perspective, the Celtics scored just 19 points in game 7 against 34 possessions in which the Heat played zone, which equates to an abysmal 0.56 points per possession.

With that said, they did show that the zone can be exploited through crisp passes and cuts, especially early in the shot clock when the defense isn’t able to collapse on one specific ballhandler.

Given that Denver’s entire offense is predicated on cuts, ball movement, and passes from a 7-foot basketball savant, I don’t think that the Heat can get away with playing zone as much as usual.

If Jokic gets the ball in the paint, he’d already be in his sweet spot and would just fling some volleyball-looking shot that somehow always ends up swishing. And if Miami swarms him, then a player such as Aaron Gordon will make a smart cut, receive the pass, and finish an open layup.

None of this is hypothetical, either: the Nuggets have averaged 1.21 points per possession against zones over the regular season and playoffs (2nd league-wide), and against Miami, they’ve been even better by scoring 19 points on 11 possessions (1.73ppp) in their two regular-season matchups this season.

It’s a small sample size, to be sure, and the Heat have gone through a bigger glow-up than Chris Pratt since the playoffs started, but Jokic will still figure out their zone sooner rather than later and force Miami to guard him using other unorthodox methods.

How will Denver guard Jimmy?

So far, Denver has emphatically answered every defensive question thrown their way during the postseason, even though none of their opponents were exactly offensive juggernauts. Anthony Edwards was the only consistent offensive threat for Minnesota in round 1, the Suns didn’t do a great job of attacking Jokic in P&Rs in round 2, and although LeBron had some success hunting Murray in round 3, his age and foot injury didn’t let him get downhill as much as he wanted.

Jimmy, though, presents an entirely new conundrum for the Nuggets. He and Erik Spoelstra are masters of hunting mismatches, and although he’s looked more fatigued in recent games, Jimmy still has more explosive burst than LeBron did during the WCF.

Aaron Gordon will draw the primary assignment, but he might exert as much energy just trying to stay on Miami’s star as much as actually guarding him. Murray and Jokic will likely be the two players whom Jimmy hunts the most, but the Nuggets do have options to counter that.

If Murray’s the target, Denver could have him hedge briefly and recover back to his initial assignment, which worked decently against LeBron.

The issue with this strategy is that it would give Jimmy a brief opportunity to drive downhill uncontested, and although he’s struggled to finish at the rim during the postseason (59% fg, 26th percentile), Jimmy’s still elite at drawing fouls, which would be extremely problematic for Denver if that happens against Jokic.

Speaking of Big Honey, if Jokic is the player whom Jimmy attacks, Denver’s coverage might vary depending on what part of the court the play is happening at. If Jimmy’s above the three-point line, the Nuggets could potentially have Jokic drop and dare him to shoot: Miami’s star has upped his three-point percentage during the playoffs (as usual) but he’s still making just 35.6% of his attempts and averaging only one made shot from downtown per game. If the Heat’s offense ends in a contested Jimmy 3, I think Denver would happily take it.

On the other hand, if Jimmy’s inside the arc, Jokic likely has no choice but to play at the level of the screen, and Denver tends to trap the ballhandlers in those situations. This means that the rest of Miami will be playing 4 on 3, but Denver’s defensive rotations have been so on point that this type of scheme hasn’t killed them.

If Jimmy’s having too much success attacking Jokic, though, one bold scheme that Denver might try could be to have Aaron Gordon guard Bam instead. Assuming he holds up, KCP could then be Jimmy’s primary defender, but this scheme only works if Miami has another non-shooter on the floor whom Jokic can sag off of. Without such a player, it’s pointless to have Jokic sticking to someone on the perimeter because that would then leave Denver without a rim protector.

Ultimately, like all great players, there isn’t one fool-proof strategy to guard Jimmy, but the Nuggets do have enough defensive versatility to at least see which strategy will work best.

How will Miami guard Jokic?

Before we answer this question, are we even sure that Jokic is in Denver? There’s definitely a non-zero chance that he flew back to Serbia to play with his horses and just decided to stay in Sombor.

Assuming Jokic is back, Miami’s in BIG trouble. Sure, Bam’s one of the best defenders in the world, but his strength lies in his versatility rather than protecting the rim, and he’s just too small to guard the Joker. Simply put, regardless if Bam plays Jokic one on one or Miami sends doubles, it’s BBQ chicken either way.

So, what could the Heat do? One option would be to copy the Lakers’ strategy of having another player guard Jokic so that their center can roam to offer help and rim protection. The issue here, though, is that Miami doesn’t have a player who fits that bill. Kevin Love could be an option since he offers size and... well, not much else.

If Spoelstra was feeling extra frisky and wanted to get even more radical, don’t be surprised to see some possessions of Jimmy guarding Jokic. It’s definitely not a strategy to use repeatedly, but he’s undoubtedly the best option to defend Jokic outside of Bam, and it would also allow the latter to roam behind.

Another option would be to switch that matchup and have Bam guard the Joker with Jimmy acting as the roamer. He’s obviously not the rim protector that Bam is, but Jimmy’s still big enough and has the defensive wherewithal to at least be a deterrent, and he can use his IQ to snuff out all of Denver’s cuts and off-ball actions to prevent open layups.

Regardless of the specific matchups, whoever’s roaming will definitely be tasked with guarding Aaron Gordon, who’s the only player in Denver’s starting 5 whom the Heat can sag off of. However, Gordon’s also one of the best screeners and cutters in the league, and he punished the Lakers in games 3 and 4 of the WCF by using his gravity as a roller to open shots for teammates.

Another play that Denver likes to run involving Gordon starts with Jokic at the top of the key with Murray preparing to curl off a screen to receive a hand-off. If the opposing defense is late to switch (as shown below), Gordon can roll to the basket for an open dunk, and if they do switch, then Murray would have a step on his defender, resulting in either a good look from 3 or a P&R with the smaller defender on Jokic.

Considering everything, Miami really has no good answer to guard Jokic no matter the strategy, and their best option would be to constantly switch schemes to keep Denver guessing. Jokic is enough of a genius to solve whatever defense Miami throws at him, but at the end of the day, he’s still human (I think), so fatigue will settle in at some point and potentially allow the Heat to out-execute Denver.

And if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Miami, it’s that they can out-execute anyone.

X-factor: Tyler Herro

At this point, Tyler Herro’s sideline fashion game is only rivaled by Ben Simmons, and seeing his old buddy Jack Harlow repping the Celtics likely bruised his ego enough to sideline him for a few more days.

Jokes aside, early reports indicate that Herro might be back for game 3, but even if he does return, no one knows how he’ll perform. We can only evaluate his play based on the regular season, and even though the Heat have completely reinvented themselves during the playoffs, that’s still better than nothing.

Over 67 games, Herro averaged 20.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 4.2 assists on 44/38/93 splits, and most notably started every game — which he certainly won’t do during the finals.

With him playing, the Heat actually had a +3.0 net rating with an above-average 115.9 offensive rating (61st percentile) and 112.9 defensive rating (72nd percentile), which are impressive figures considering Miami had an overrall net rating of -0.1 in the regular season.

With Herro on and Jimmy off, the Heat’s net rating dropped to -0.5 due to a sluggish 113.5 offensive rating, but that latter mark was still higher than their overall OffRtg of 113.3, so Herro did an admirable of keeping Miami’s attack somewhat afloat.

One of Herro’s trademarks is his P&R partnership with Bam, and the 23-year-old actually led Miami in P&R frequency by running 7.1 plays per game and scoring a robust 0.93 points on those possessions (65.5 percentile). For comparison, Jimmy is running 9.3 P&Rs per game during the playoffs and averaging 0.95ppp (55.2 percentile), so Herro’s volume and efficiency in the regular season aren’t far off of what Jimmy’s currently producing.

Even so, the rise of Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin might negate some of the value that Herro provides as a ballhandler. Vincent and Martin have done a more than capable job of alleviating some of Jimmy’s offensive load, but more importantly, they haven’t been targets on defense, and the same can’t be said about Herro.

Taking that into consideration, the Heat might’ve actually benefitted from Herro’s absence since it’s allowed them to play better defensive lineups while not giving away much on offense. So even if the young guard can miraculously regain his midseason form, his defensive shortcomings will likely negate whatever offensive boost he will provide.

With that said, no one knows how Herro will perform once he’s back. He might very well explode offensively and give Miami enough juice to keep things competitive, or be so rusty and unreliable on defense that the Nuggets render him unplayable. That’s why he’s the ultimate x-factor, and only time will tell how much of an impact he can make, if any.


If Bill “body-language doctor” Simmons has been driving the bus of Denver’s bandwagon, then I’ve been the sidekick Bill who’s occupied the role of assistant to the bus driver.

Miami has been a great story, but the Nuggets are an entirely different beast compared to the other teams that the Heat have faced. On paper, Denver’s talent might be comparable to that of Boston and Milwaukee, but the synergy that they have on the floor elevates them to a whole new level.

The Nuggets just have too much firepower for Miami to keep up, and it’s time for a guy who looks like he was made out of Play-Doh to be crowned as one of the greatest players to ever step on the hardwood.

Nuggets in 5.

To continue pumping Wemby’s hype, please check out Jesus’ article on what makes him a perfect prospect! Spurs fans really had it tough for a few years, and they truly deserved another generational big. It’s not like San Antonio’s had two already...

As always, thanks for reading! It’s been a pleasure writing this season, and I hope everyone enjoys what should be a memorable NBA finals.

All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats.