Why You Should Care About the Heat-Nuggets Final

Commentary6 months ago13 min readJohn Jablonka

The Miami Heat are about to play in their seventh NBA finals. They are now tied for sixth for most finals appearances. On the other hand, their opponent, the Denver Nuggets, will be there for the first time in franchise history.

It’s wild writing this out. The Heat are in the finals for the second time in four years. This is the most success that I’ve witnessed live from the Heat and it’s such a great feeling. My first season following the Heat properly was when they missed the playoffs. Before Jimmy Butler arrived, the most success that I’ve seen was a game seven against the Toronto Raptors.

Now, they’re the most successful and most consistent team in the last four years. What a turnaround.

And this playoff run is like none other. This doesn’t come close to any previous Heat teams that made the finals. This isn’t a team that was a favorite. This wasn’t a team that was even a top-six team in their conference. This wasn’t a team that any expert or analyst would have made a run to the finals before the playoffs started. The majority of media members, coaches, fans, scouts, and executives all went against the Heat in each round(there have been some die-hard Heat supporters, though — shoutout to Bobby Marks). Each time, they proved everyone wrong.

But in each round, each game, they showed why they can’t be counted out. Sure, this series does look like the Nuggets should win. There’s a lot going right for them and I’d say that they are the better team and have the best player. To me, the Nuggets have been the best team in the league for the whole season.

Although it does make sense to pick the Nuggets, even with the Heat being on this run, it’s still tough to count them out completely or to say they can’t win.

After Erik Spoelstra’s press conference in game 6, I don’t think there’s anything they can’t do this season.

“At this time right now, I don’t know how we’re gonna get this done but we’re gonna go up there and get it done”

This had to be the best Spoelstra answer I’ve heard. Ever.

This is going to be a slightly different series preview compared to the previous ones. Apparently, no one will care about these finals because this has no storylines. It’s boring. The ratings will be bad. There’s nothing to care about or worth watching. It’s not entertaining. There’s no LeBron James, Stephen Curry, or even Jayson Tatum.

So, here’s everything you need to know about the finals.

The Lead Guys

In a way, I feel like both Butler and Nikola Jokic have been quite similar in how they’re viewed by your average fan and the national media. I don’t think both get as much respect compared to other stars, despite arguably being better and more successful than most.

Butler was seen as a locker room cancer. He was retiring in Miami. You can’t win with Butler. He proved that wrong in his first year with the Heat. Though that didn’t last long since the Heat got swept by the Milwaukee Bucks and he got outscored by Bryn Forbes. The context didn’t matter — they were just excuses.

Fine. He’ll follow that with arguably a career year in the regular season and enter the playoffs as the number-one seed. And that run was incredible. Averaging over 25 points in each series on elite efficiency. With the supporting cast injured or underperforming, it didn’t matter because he willed them to win in many games.

Unfortunately, they fell short. Short on a potential game-winning 3 taken by Butler. Shortly after he told everyone that next year they’ll be right back and they’re going to get it done(similar to how Spoelstra treated that game six post-game conference).

I’m sure everyone called him crazy. It looked crazy after the Heat struggled throughout the season. It probably looked crazier after he guaranteed a win against the Atlanta Hawks and played his worst game of the season.

That’s fine. He followed all of that with a historic series against the Bucks. That was truly one of the best series I’ve ever seen. There was no doubt who was the best player in the world during the first round.

1 and a half rounds later, the Heat are up 3-0 with Butler guaranteeing a win each time even though he played below his standards. I had two straight breakdowns talking about how Butler underperformed and looked awful at times. But that didn’t matter, as he and the Heat took care of business on the road in The Garden in game seven. Now, he finds himself in his second finals appearance.

For a guy that you can’t win with, he’s somehow been finding ways to defy all odds and do something no other player has done since he went to the Heat. No one else can say they made the finals twice in four years. Only the Celtics can say they made the conference finals three times in four years.

This is similar to Jokic. A guy that’s a two-time MVP but I still don’t think he gets enough respect, especially in the playoffs. He’s the best player in the world(or at least right there with 2-3 guys, depending on your preference).

One thing that always annoyed me is how he got treated for his playoff history. This is a guy that lost in the first round ONCE but isn’t seen as a winner. This is the second conference final in his career.

What he’s doing in this playoff run is finally getting noticed, but where was this talk where he was scoring 30 plus on even better efficiency than he is now with a lesser supporting cast?

Why was his MVP invalidated and couldn’t have won three in a row because of his lack of playoff success?

When I was watching the Nuggets in the playoffs, Jokic reached the status of getting me to laugh when he does incredible things on the court. What he’s been doing for over three years is simply ridiculous.

I’m not one to talk about legacy in a way that can hurt someone where they have a lot at stake. I’d say this is where the whole conversation about failure doesn’t exist makes sense. Whether Jokic or Butler lose it doesn’t leave a stain on their legacy or how they’ll be remembered. This is just steps towards their legacy and I don’t think you ever take steps back.

But this is a historic step for them going forward. Everyone has seen Jokic’s greatness in the regular season. He almost won three straight MVPs whereas only the legends have done so. And even though he’s been historic in the playoffs, getting a ring on top of it matters.

Again, I don’t like ring culture in a way that diminishes players if they haven’t won so. Not winning a ring won’t hurt a player, but winning one certainly lifts them.

So, Jokic at 27 will be:

  • 5x All-Star
  • 5x All-NBA
  • 2x MVP

And a champion. That’s wild.

For Butler is different. He will be turning 34 this year. It’s not many years until he leaves his prime. This is as good of a chance he will ever get of winning a championship and those opportunities don’t come often. Winning a championship as the best player after everything that’s happened in his career so far with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers, and the Chicago Bulls, is just too good of a story.

The Supporting Cast

For the past four years, I can probably guess that the word most used when talking about the Heat has been “undrafted”. This is the Heat’s new buzzword — second to “Heat Culture”.

It’s true, though, that three of their top five guys in total minutes played in the playoffs have been undrafted — or five of the top 10. 47 percent of their total minutes.

I have no issue with mentioning that they’re undrafted. That’s an important part of each of their career. How they started matters and it shows the incredible journey they’ve had to get here.

The issue is how they’re still being viewed. A lot of these guys have been in the league for almost five years! Yes, they started undrafted. Their contributions early on were surprising. Seeing a bunch of guys that haven’t been known suddenly pop up is impressive. But they’re not those guys anymore!

They’ve shown that they’re as good as anyone else. They’re not just some undrafted players in 2023. They’ve been playing important minutes in multiple playoff runs now.

And that’s what the story should be.

Duncan Robinson.

Gabe Vincent.

Max Strus.

Haywood Highsmith.

Caleb Martin.

Their journey from almost not making any teams to being key contributors on a finals team(some on multiple finals teams) is amazing. Every single one of those guys improved significantly. They may have started on the team at the back of the bench but now they’re as talented as anyone else in the league to the point where Martin almost won an MVP in the conference finals.

That journey from all five guys is exactly what Heat Culture is about and the Heat wouldn’t be here without any one of them.

Then on the other side, you have Jamal Murray. Two years ago he tore his ACL. He missed an entire following season. Fast forward to now and he’s been the second-best player on a finals team. That’s another incredible journey.

He has reminded people that playoff Murray is a thing. He literally just averaged over 32 points per game on “checks notes” and 65 percent true shooting. They are historic numbers. And to think that he wasn’t playing just a year ago is wild.

Similar to Michael Porter Jr, who has dealt with his share of injuries. He also had many concerns coming into the league with his health and defense. He missed all but nine games last year too. And now, he’s shooting over 40 percent on almost seven 3s. That’s just funny to read.

Finally, there are the coaches. Did you know that there are only four coaches who coached for one team for more than 6 years? It’s only Gregg Popovich, Spoelstra, Steve Kerr, and Michael Malone.

That’s right, two of the top four longest-tenured coaches will battle in the finals. And these are the two teams that also were in the conference finals in 2020. This just shows that consistency matters. Having that stability matters. Having coaches that stay matters.

Spoelstra is three wins away from tying Doc Rivers for fourth most wins in the playoffs. With a championship, he will also have the seventh most rings — he’s currently tied seventh with eight other coaches with two.

And this ring will also be his first one without LeBron James. Now, I don’t think he needs another ring to shut all that conversation about needing super teams to win. But man, it’s going to feel so good once all the haters won’t be able to use the “what has he done without James”.

So, there’s all of that and people will still say this isn’t a fun matchup. Who cares about Jokic and Butler cementing their legacies right now with a ring? Who cares about the improbable journey of both teams? Why bother watching the finals if there it isn’t the Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers?

This isn’t to say any matchup is better than another — each matchup can be equally as fun and important — but to make it seem like there’s nothing entertaining or compelling about these two teams beyond basketball is wild and wrong to say.

The Basketball Side

Of course, there’s still a lot of actual basketball too. I will say there’s nothing wrong with not caring as much or wanting to follow the finals because of these legacy storylines. I will admit that before I got into basketball like this, a lot of the times when I watched the Golden State Warriors vs Cleveland Cavaliers finals, it was about Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant going up against James. That narrative was also fun. Not everyone wants to talk about schemes and Xs & Os.

But this series is also fun from that standpoint too.

It’s not like this matchup is going to have no offense and have scored as if they were in the 90s.

Did you know that the Nuggets with Jokic on have a 123.9 offensive rating in the playoffs?! That’s absurd. I don’t know what those numbers look like compared to other top offensive teams, but I’ll bet their first.

What the Nuggets are doing on offense, led by Jokic is insane. He’s a 7-foot walking triple-double that’s highly efficient. He’s been one of the best, if not the best, scorer in the playoffs. But he’s easily the best passer and it’s not even close.

This Nuggets team will be tough to defend. Can’t have Bam Adebayo, as great as he is, go 1v1 against Jokic. He’s going to cook him. Can’t double him because he will make the pass as soon as the double comes — his processing speed and decision making is instant. Can’t run zone because he will also tear that apart.

And that’s just one player! There’s still Murray, whether creating his own shot or running actions with Jokic(even inverted PnRs). He can go get him too. If the Heat sends more help there, it’s kicked to Porter Jr, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, or dunks for Gordon.

However, the Nuggets will have to deal with Butler. This isn’t going to be the same series as it was against the Celtics. The Nuggets won’t be switching everything and the Heat’s offense won’t be flattened like it was.

This means Butler will have more looks against a drop in the PnR with Adebayo. It does mean Adebayo will need to be better at making quicker reads when Jokic is higher on the screen.

The Heat will have to try to match their offense. They will have to mix and experiment with everything on defense to stop this elite offense. This isn’t the same elite offense they stopped with the Celtics. The Nuggets are on a whole different level.

So, their plan to win is on offense. Shooters will have to make shots. Hopefully, their shooting will remain hot. Putting pressure on Jokic to defend in space will be key. Force him to play higher up, defending those dribble handoffs to tire him out will be important. I don’t think they’ve seen an offense like the Heats with all the cutting and movement.

With Jokic on, the Nuggets also allow 49 percent in the short mid-range with almost 30 percent of the shots being there. So, that’s going to be another “Butler make your shots in the paint” kind of offense. Both Kyle Lowry and Vincent will also be important in killing that drop in that mid-range.

This is going to be tough for the Heat. This is going to be the best offense they’ve seen by far, but it also might not be the worst matchup on defense. My brain wants to say Nuggets in six or seven but the Heat have overcome all odds, so it’s tough to bet against them

My final prediction is Heat in six.