As everyone predicted, the NBA Finals duel will be called Heat vs. Nuggets.
The team that has never reached the Finals before against the eighth-seeded mover that nearly became the first team in NBA history to lose a 3-0 lead in the series.
Nikola Jokic averaged an extremely efficient triple-double in the first three rounds of the playoffs, and “Playoff Jimmy” Butler was the top playoff player in the East.
Which star will win the Larry O’Brien Trophy? Let’s take a first look at the most important factors of the series.
MORE: Which NBA teams have never made the finals?
Heat vs. Nuggets head-to-head record and season streak
Based on the two encounters during the regular season, this series should be competitive. In the first match in Miami, all the main players from both teams were available and the Nuggets won 124-119.
Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, Kyle Lowry, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson were absent from the rematch in Denver. The Nuggets prevailed here as well and won with a final score of 112-108.
For the past season, the Nuggets have dominated. They have won six in a row and nine of their last ten meetings overall, their only loss coming in a regular-season game at the Orlando bubble in August 2020.
Will Nikola Jokic or Jimmy Butler be the best player in the series?
Jokic killed the Heat during the regular season and averaged a 23-point triple-double. As a small team, the Heat are not well equipped to protect him. The 6-9, 250-pound Bam Adebayo had most of his time trying to hold him down — Jokic has a two-inch, nearly 30-pound lead in this match.
Adebayo is a fantastic defensive player but according to league tracking data, Jokic had a 60 percent batting average against him in the regular season. It was even worse for Adebayo last year – Jokic hit 67 percent of his shots.
Looking ahead, Jokic defeated the Heat this year. Average 23/12/10 at 69/67/100 shooting stages.
Bam is obviously a great defender, but he struggled in one-on-ones in this duel. pic.twitter.com/vebqbRCMRa
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) May 22, 2023
While The Heat experimented with switching smaller players to Jokic, it mauled and easily let down players like Butler and Caleb Martin.
Kevin Love wasn’t in the Heat’s roster the last time they faced the Nuggets. He could be an option to add some size to Jokic but Love has barely protected Jokic in recent seasons. The Heat have also signed big substitute Cody Zeller, who should be able to keep up with Jokic a bit.
While the Heat don’t have great options against Jokic, the Nuggets have some solid ones against Butler. Gordon got the main contract in the first game, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got it in the second game.
Gordon has the power to hit Butler at the post and the speed to stay in front of him on the outside edge. Caldwell-Pope is a good defensive player with the length to fight Butler’s fadeaways. Bruce Brown also has the power to make life difficult for Butler.
Despite Butler’s size, the Nuggets couldn’t hold him back much in the regular season. He averaged 20.5 points, 8.5 assists, and 8.0 rebounds per game against them. It has to be a team effort by the Nuggets.
Heat X Factor: Kyle Lowry
Lowry has performed well in the bench role for the Heat, hitting timely 3-point shots and energetic plays in the playoffs.
Lowry’s screening will be very important. He was mostly guarded by Murray during the regular season and the Heat will look to use Lowry as a shield to bring Butler to the match. Lowry was very successful in this role in previous series, bringing in the smaller Derrick White in Butler’s place.
Lowry has also found great success at filing criminal charges and generally being a nuisance. The Heat need to be extremely active defensively to slow down the Nuggets, and Lowry has the ability to amp up their offense.
Nugget’s X Factor: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
The Heat tried to sprinkle their 2-3 zone during the playoffs. A good way to get past this zone is to shoot over it. This is where Caldwell-Pope can make a difference. He should have many open looks.
Caldwell-Pope has exploited that role throughout the regular season, posting a career-best 42.3 percent on his 3-pointers and a commanding 6-of-7 record against the Heat.
Prediction “Heat vs. Nuggets”.
The Heat have shown that underestimating them is a mistake. This isn’t the 44-win regular-season team that barely made the playoffs.
However, this is not a good combination for them. The Nuggets have significant advantages in both talent and offensive firepower. The Heat don’t have a lot of personnel to match Jokic, who scored 12 of 14 goals in his last appearance against them.
The heat zone could also prove ineffective. The Nuggets have good outside shooting, and their specialty is the kind of passing game and movement that zones can struggle to control.
Butler has already shown in 2020 that he alone is capable of winning two Finals games, but I don’t think the Heat will beat this Nuggets team four times.
My choice: nuggets in six pieces