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Five matchups to watch in the 2023 NBA Finals between the Nuggets and Heat

Here’s a look at the battles which will determine the outcome of the Finals.

The Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat will meet in the 2023 NBA Finals, which begin Thursday, June 1 on ABC. The Nuggets marched through the Western Conference with ease as the No. 1 seed, while the Heat entered the playoffs after an inconsistent regular season as the No. 8 seed. Miami nearly lost the second play-in game against the Bulls and could’ve been eliminated if not for a 15-1 run to salvage a playoff spot.

Once the NBA playoffs began though, both teams looked like title contenders. The Nuggets and Heat went a combined 16-6 through the first two series. They combined to win the first seven games of the conference finals and if the Celtics hadn’t rediscovered their form in time, both series could’ve been sweeps. Now, these two dominant teams will meet for the ultimate prize.

Here’s a look at the five matchups between the Nuggets and Heat that will determine the Finals.

Nikola Jokic vs. Bam Adebayo

In the first game of the playoffs, Jokic finished with 13 points, 14 assists and six rebounds. In the subsequent 14, he’s averaging 31.1 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.6 assists per game while shooting 53.9% from the floor and 47.4% from deep. This is beyond the realms of most superstar production, even for a two-time league MVP. There’s simply no matchup this postseason Jokic hasn’t dominated in.

Adebayo is not a rim protector in the truest sense of the word, and he’s only averaging 9.2 rebounds per game in the playoffs. However, he’s Miami’s only true big man who can play big minutes. Adebayo’s versatility as a defender is paramount for the Heat. His ability to switch and defend in space gives Miami an edge on that side of the ball. On offense, Adebayo is able to operate as a point-forward at times. He’s a capable passer and can be aggressive in attacking the basket. His energy offensively wanes at times, but he’s always locked in defensively.

The Heat are going to throw a lot of looks at Jokic, but how deep they go in their bag will largely depend on whether Adebayo can hold his own with the Nuggets big man 1-on-1. If Jokic can get him in foul trouble, the Heat don’t have much depth behind him. If Adebayo can defend Jokic and limit him without fouling, it’ll potentially change the way the big man operates within Denver’s offense. The Nuggets’ peripheral players have been able to hit big shots when needed but can they do it consistently enough if pushed into taking volume attempts? That’s a potential gamble the Heat would gladly take.

Jimmy Butler vs. Aaron Gordon

This is likely going to be the primary defensive assignment for Gordon, who has battled with the likes of Anthony Edwards, Kevin Durant and LeBron James during this playoff run. His offensive contributions have been inconsistent but he has the right blend of size and speed to theoretically hang with Butler.

The Heat forward has cooled slightly since the beginning of the playoffs, but still remains the most potent threat offensively for the team. Butler averaged 31.1 points per game through the first two rounds on 52.7% shooting. Those numbers fell to 24.7 and 42%, respectively, in the conference finals. Some of that has to do with other players stepping up, and some has to do with Butler being unable to get to the free-throw line as frequently. Still, he’s a relentless player on offense and showed in Game 6 against Boston he can turn things on in an instant.

Butler will hunt for matchups, which is similar to what other players stuck on Gordon did in previous series. Denver will have to make decisions on how to adjust defensively but the Nuggets are likely going to leave Gordon on an island for a good portion of the game. If he can contain Butler it’ll put additional pressure on Miami’s secondary players, who are already playing in bigger roles due to injuries. If Butler can consistently beat Gordon, it’ll give those secondary players cleaner looks from the perimeter on a routine basis. The Heat just got done shooting 43.4% from deep over the seven-game series against Boston. That’s not a percentage Denver would want to give up.

Caleb Martin vs. Michael Porter Jr.

In the 2022-23 regular season, Martin averaged 9.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game on 46/36/80 shooting splits. He was a solid rotation player averaging just under 30 minutes per game and was filling that role perfectly. After Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo went down in the first round, Martin was thrust into a bigger role. He got more playing time and in turn, took some more shots. His numbers in the first two rounds of the playoffs are solid: 10.8 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game and 53/39/80 shooting splits. He was a high-efficiency role player. Then the conference finals rolled around.

Martin managed to maintain his impressive efficiency on significantly increased volume. In seven games against Boston, he averaged 19.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game on 60/49/87.5 splits. Surely, the percentages will normalize slightly but Martin was already an efficient player. They aren’t going to regress too much.

On the flip side, Porter Jr. simply hasn’t been asked to become Denver’s third star on offense this postseason. He’s averaging 14.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, with 45.5/41/81 splits. Given how much Jokic and Jamal Murray have done for Denver, those are passable numbers for Porter Jr.

The Heat are an incredibly effective zone team, and that means open triples. So far, Miami’s opponents haven’t hit them. Porter Jr. might not be an all-around star but he’s able to connect from the perimeter at a high clip. If he hits enough shots and gets into a groove offensively, Miami can’t focus all its energy on Jokic and Murray. It also can’t play zone for long stretches, which has been its trump card in the playoffs.

This matchup is less about the schematics and more about actual production. Martin will have to consistently outscore Porter Jr. to give the Heat a chance. As great as the Heat forward has been playing, Porter Jr. should be able to top his production. If he can’t, it’ll further burden Jokic and Murray. At some point, even those great players can’t carry the entire team.

Michael Malone vs. Erik Spoelstra

Malone isn’t a bad coach but his tactical abilities aren’t really known given the presence of Jokic. In short, it’s hard to look bad when you’ve got a two-time MVP who routinely puts up triple-doubles. On the other side, Spoelstra is a master tactician who has achieved this run with a depleted, unheralded roster outside of Butler and Adebayo.

Malone hasn’t had to make adjustments in any series so far. Outside of being tested slightly by the Suns in the second round, the Nuggets have been able to cruise in these playoffs. Denver has top-end talent and plenty of depth. There just hasn’t been a lot to do here. Spoelstra also didn’t have much to do in the first two rounds, but he masterfully navigated a daunting task in the conference finals. The Heat could’ve easily crumbled, losing a 3-0 lead and losing Game 6 at home on a late putback at the buzzer. Going into a road Game 7 with historic implications, Miami absolutely suffocated Boston and Spoelstra coached circles around his counterpart Joe Mazzulla.

This is an interesting battle because it won’t really show itself until after the first few games. The longer the series goes, the more this favors Spoelstra and Miami.

Rest vs. rust, home vs. road, depth vs. culture

By the time Game 1 tips off Thursday, the Nuggets will have gone nine days without playing a competitive basketball game. They will be well-rested, but will they also be rusty? The Heat are coming off a grueling Game 6 and a road Game 7 just days before the Finals. They’re going to have to adjust to the altitude, but they’ve also been playing competitive ball and are theoretically in a rhythm.

That altitude has been a factor this postseason and could be important in the Finals. Denver has not lost a game at home in the playoffs, and has homecourt advantage in this series. The Heat have won at least one road game in every playoff series this year, with three road wins in the conference finals including a road Game 7. Can Miami break the Nuggets at home in the Finals? Winning one of the first two games would be huge for the No. 8 seed.

If the Heat do achieve a split after the first two games, they could be getting Tyler Herro back for Game 3. The guard was recovering from a broken hand and likely won’t play much right away, but he did average 20.1 points per game during the regular season. The Nuggets have more depth, while the Heat have a culture of the next man stepping up. At some point though, you still need to have bodies. Herro provides a body, and he’s a good representation of “Heat Culture” as well. Denver’s rotation is unlikely to get shortened barring injuries and that would theoretically give the Nuggets an edge over the Heat. If Herro can come back and be at 100% right away, would he swing the series for Miami?