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Final thoughts on the NBA Finals

Another ABA team finally joins the Spurs in the Hall of Champions.

Well, the best team won. There is a reason the Nuggets won the West, and the Heat “played in” to the playoffs, and even then barely made it in, losing to a mediocre Hawks team and having to come from behind to beat a mediocre Bulls team. As a result, the Nuggets won it all by beating an 8th seed in the West (the T’Wolves), a Suns team just getting to know each other, the 7th seed Lakers (maybe the second best team in the playoffs — but still got swept) and the 8th seed Heat.

But does anyone think that the Nuggets would have had any more trouble with the 2nd seed Grizzlies or the 3rd Kings to get out of the West? Or the 2nd or 3rd seeds in the East: Celtics and 76ers? No, once the Heat knocked the Bucks out in the first round, the Nuggets became the best team standing. As a result, they became the second ex-ABA team to win an NBA crown — the Spurs were the first (and second, third, fourth and fifth). With their 16-4 record in the playoffs, and going 4-0 in their last four road games, the Nuggets also become favorites to run it back next season.

But let’s allow the Nuggets enjoy this one for a while first before worrying about the 2023-24 season, and 2024-2025 the season after that. Spurs fans are thinking that 2025-2026 might be the right season for an upstart young team to step forward and challenge the Nuggets, and everybody else....

Other thoughts

  • PTR readers know that I rarely do the instant reaction/deadline summaries of games, even in the Finals. But I greatly admire the writers who have the skill to do that. One who did it very well was Eddie Pells of the AP, who began his summary of the game with this great lead-in: “Confetti flying in Denver. The Nuggets passing around the NBA championship trophy. Those scenes that, for decades, seemed impossible, then more recently started feeling inevitable, finally turned into reality Monday night.”
  • Playoff Jimmy Butler was not great in the Finals. While Butler was good, it wasn’t enough — the Heat needed transcendent Jimmy Freakin’ Butler to have a chance against this strong Nuggets squad. Whether it was his ankle, fatigue, Aaron Gordon, or a combination of those three, Butler never had the type of dominant game he did multiple times prior to the Finals. One key difference in the Finals: when Butler got into the paint, he did not rise up and shoot over people as he did in the early playoffs. And without that, the Heat just weren’t going to outscore the Nuggets. Butler’s failure to rise up in the paint and score near the end of Game Five led to his panicked pass stolen by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, instead of the Heat taking the lead back in the final minute. When asked what he will remember from the last two minutes of the game, Butler said simply, “I turned the ball over”.
  • Nuggets’ rookie Christian Braun became the third player in history to win NCAA and NBA championships in back-to-back years. You may have heard of the other two: Magic Johnson and Bill Russell.
  • Nuggets’ “small forward” (he’s 6’10”) Michael Porter Jr. had a terrible time shooting the ball in the Finals. He shot 14% from three, after shooting over 41% for the regular season. But he kept playing and doing other things. And in Game Five, he had 16 points and 13 boards despite yet another woeful shooting performance (one for six from three that improved his shooting percentage in the Finals).
  • MPJ was not the only player who shot badly in Game Five. Every single Heat player was below 50%. Other than Joker’s 12 for 16 game, the only other Nugget player who broke 50% was Uncle Jeff Green, who made both of his shots in his five minutes on the floor.
  • At one point in Game Five, after a series of bricked shots and turnovers, my buddy Thunder Dan shouted out “Please make it stop!!” But neither team improved, which is why we wound up with a final score from the 1990s — 94-89. As a reminder, every team in the NBA except the Miami Heat this season averaged over 110 points per game. The Heat averaged 109 per game, 20 points more than they scored in Game Five. Of course, when a team shoots 34% overall and 28% from three, 89 seems like about the right number of points. The Nuggets were not much better. They shot 45% overall (absent Joker’s 12 for 16, the Nuggets shot 35%), 18% from three. The Heat also played great free throw defense, as the Nuggets went 9 for 19 from the line until making their last four free throws in the last minute, two clutch free throws each by KCP and sixth man Bruce Brown. Those four free throws clinched the game, and the championship for the Nuggets, in a game as ugly as this graphic:
  • Brown also made the last basket scored by either team — his offensive rebound put-back with 1:31 left put the Nuggets up 90-89. The Heat did not score again.
  • Interestingly, two of the biggest plays of the 2023 playoffs were very similar. Brown crashed in for the offensive rebound from the left wing, starting outside the three-point line. Ex-Spur Derrick White made a very similar play to win Game Six in the Celtics-Heat series, crashing the boards after in-bounding the ball on the left wing. I used to tell our small forwards to go after every missed shot and good things will happen. For Brown and White, and every other player whose name is a color (DannyGreen!!, Michael Redd! Vida Blue?!) — hit the boards, good things will, and did, happen.
  • At the end of Game Five, before celebrating with his teammates, Nikola Jokic went to the Miami Heat players and coaches and shook hands with each one of them. How can anyone not love this guy?
  • If you watched the trophy ceremony after Game Five, you saw something that demonstrate how little Jokic cares about individual awards. After winning the Finals MVP award, he left the trophy on the podium when he left. Instead, he scooped up his daughter and walked into the confetti with her.

Finally, as is my tradition, like “One Shining Moment” at the end of March Madness, I end this season with a list of Favorite Memories. I hope these Favorite Memories will sustain me (and you) during the barren wasteland of the NBA off-season — some from the distant past, some from the recent present — and one which has yet to occur, but which will happen very soon. Upon further reflection, many of these are both Favorite Memories and things I look forward to seeing again once NBA play begins anew.

Michael Cooper in a defensive stance,

The Joker triple doubling,

Jerry West dribbling hard right and pulling up for a clutch jumper,

The Spurs Beautiful Gaming the Miami Heat off the floor in the Redemption Finals,

Robert Horry spotting up in the last minute of a playoff game,

DannyGreen!! snuffing out an opponent’s fast break,

Wilt finger-rolling,

Steph Curry sprinting around the court, using multiple screens, looking for a split-second opening to catch, shoot and make a three — from distance!,

DFish bellying up on a guy who is bigger faster quicker and more talented (even though Tony still dominated him),

Damian Lillard Dame-timing it,

Spurs youth movement players improving,

Mike Breen BANG-ing,

Luka Doncic creating,

Playoff Jimmy Butler “just ballin’” (Butler’s description of why he becomes Playoff Jimmy)

Magic Johnson running the middle dishing this way, wait, no, that way,

Patty Mills sprinting over to help a teammate to their feet after that teammate took a charge,

Rick Barry under-handing,

Giannis Euro-stepping,

The Oui Frenchman tear-dropping,

Dirk step-backing,

Earl the Pearl spin-dribbling

A Shooter heating up, with the crowd joining in,

Pistol Pete behind-the-back or between-the-legs passing,

The Great Duncan blocking a shot, controlling the ball, and throwing the long bounce outlet pass,

Dr. J dunking,

Manu Ginobili competing,

LeBron (or Giannis, or Bam) chasing down a seemingly uncontested breakaway lay-up,

Popovich teaching for one more season,

Wembenyama debuting (and yes, that is a French word)

And in honor of the NBA champion Denver Nuggets — champions enjoying each other’s company one last time as the season ends — celebrating.

Yep, those are my Favorite Hoops Memories. They will keep me going through the off-season — but I am also VERY MUCH looking forward to the NBA draft, and the Spurs’ improvement next year.

That’s it from Coach Lee D. Thank you for following along.