2023 NBA Finals Preview: Miami continues its uphill battle into Denver

If there’s one word to describe this year’s NBA Playoffs, it’s “poetic.” The stories of both conferences are polar opposites. A one-seed playing against a Play-In team. One conference final ended in a quick sweep and the other in a Game 7. Who would’ve thought?

Erik Spoelstra and the Miami Heat have picked apart every team in their path. Jimmy Butler resurfaced as the playoff performer he once was, shocking the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks in back-to-back gentleman’s sweeps.

On Monday night, the Miami Heat torched the Boston Celtics to avoid blowing a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. On the verge of sweeping the Celtics, Jayson Tatum and the defending Eastern Conference champions came back and won three straight, completely overturning the series in their favor. However, Game 7 brought misfortune to TD Garden, with an injured Tatum failing to will his team to a win, sending an eighth seed to the NBA Finals for the second time ever.

This isn’t a team full of superstar talent by any means. Butler, although having an amazing postseason, is not a regular-season performer, and therefore considered an underdog in today’s league. Bam Adebayo is the only 2023 All-Star on this team, and the rest of their squad is full of role players. They played their “roles” perfectly.

Caleb Martin was the runner-up for the Eastern Conference Finals MVP trophy. The former G-Leaguer was on the verge of being out of the NBA after being cut by the Charlotte Hornets but eventually found his way to averaging 19.3 points and 6.4 rebounds against Boston. It’s a true against-all-odds story.

The combination of undrafted surprises like Martin, Gabe Vincent, and Duncan Robinson is complemented by the additions of former All-Stars that have rejuvenated their careers in smaller roles. Kevin Love and Kyle Lowry were once All-NBA talents, but Father Time has slowed their production. Spoelstra’s coaching has elevated their impact. He has experience bringing out the best in aging skills during Finals runs. Andre Iguodala, Ray Allen, and Shane Battier to name a few. Lowry and Love typically come off of the bench as veterans that can keep the younger guys under control.

The bottom line is that the Miami Heat are not what their seed says they are. They have shown the most grit and determination in the playoffs, combatting other teams’ star power and skill with defense, hustle, and strategic offense.

On the other side of the country, the Denver Nuggets showed no signs of weakness in Los Angeles, sweeping LeBron James and the Lakers. Nikola Jokic (robbed of his third-straight MVP award) has given us an absolute masterclass this postseason. The Serbian sensation is averaging a near 30-point triple-double in 15 games, and making it look effortless.

Not to mention, head coach Mike Malone has a phenomenal supporting cast. The second star of this team, Jamal Murray, has once again been playing All-NBA basketball since April, and their squad of red-hot role players includes Michael Porter Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon, and more. What’s most intriguing about the Nuggets is that their bench isn’t super talented. They all just gel as a unit, when they’re even on the floor. Bruce Brown Jr. and Jeff Green were the only players to come off of the bench in Game 4 versus LA, and besides those two, the next guys up are Reggie Jackson and Thomas Bryant.

It speaks volumes to the coaching of Malone and their staff, allowing Jokic to take command of the offense as a center. We have never seen someone this big (and unathletic) take control of the NBA like this. Sure, there’s a history of centers being dominant in their respective eras, but Jokic does it differently. He doesn’t move like a guard, but he shoots, passes, and thinks like one, combined with the physicality and rebounding of a center.

However, even if the two-time MVP often acting as a floor general takes a load off of Murray’s shoulders, there’s no denying the Kentucky product’s scoring ability as well as his defensive prowess. They’ve needed him nearly just as much as they’ve needed Jokic this postseason.

There are many questions heading into this year’s championship series, and these answers will determine the winner more than anything.

Should Tyler Herro come back for the NBA Finals?

Reports came out that Herro is expected to return mid-series, however, with all of the momentum and chemistry that this team has built without the former Sixth Man of the Year, would it hinder what they’ve already developed?

Herro’s return would most likely mean that Robinson would slip out of the rotation. On paper, it’s a clear-cut decision. However, if you watch how Robinson has elevated to the other side of the floor, the decision becomes tougher. Once slammed for being a defensive liability, the once Division III player has held his own this postseason, shooting 44.6% from deep.

I just don’t think they should throw Herro into the rotation immediately unless they’re on the brink of elimination. The Wisconsin native is expected to return in Game 3, but if Miami steals a game in Denver, they have momentum swinging their way, and it wouldn’t make sense to revise what has already been working for them. Plus, how do we know Herro will have the same production as he had without over a month of action? Don’t rush back Herro unless it’s absolutely necessary. If he does play, he should have a heavy minutes restriction.

Where are the matchup advantages between the two teams?

The advantages that both teams have are extremely interesting. Although Murray is a flamethrower, the Heat have a slight advantage in terms of defense from their guards and depth. Butler can hold his own against anyone, and Martin is scorching hot coming into this series. Not to mention, Denver has to worry about Lowry, Vincent, Robinson, and Herro if he returns.

Jokic has the clear upper hand against Adebayo down low. Miami’s center struggled in their last series, and the MVP runner-up is playing the best basketball of his career. Adebayo can still have solid production on offense, as Jokic’s defense isn’t necessarily great. However, the rebounding, passing, and shooting battle ultimately goes to the Serbian.

Looking at the bigs on the bench, Cody Zeller receives minimal playing time, and Kevin Love isn’t truly big, so Malone can keep his trend of having Jokic as his true and only big. Expect near 45-minute games from both starting centers.

Generally looking at both starting lineups, the Nuggets have an advantage when it comes to talent, however, the Heat have the upper hand when it comes to bench depth. If Spoelstra can keep guys ready and energized with different lineups, it will be a challenge for Malone and the company.

2023 NBA Finals Prediction: Denver defeats Miami 4-2

It’s an exciting story between both teams: the defensive powerhouse trying to upset the offensive juggernaut. Unfortunately, the Heat’s Cinderella story ends on the big stage. I can see the Heat getting two games at home, but Butler can’t be Batman against the Joker. We saw this team nearly collapse in the conference finals, and Denver has shown no true weaknesses in their playoff run. They have all of the momentum in the world.

My prediction: Jokic, Murray, and the Nuggets finally win their first ring, and the city of Denver rejoices and distracts themself as the rest of their sports teams are falling on themselves. In a playoff full of parity comes a relatively predictable series.

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Jed Katz is currently a Journalism student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Originally from Bergen County, NJ, Katz was a writer and editor for the Northern Highlands Regional HS newspaper, as well as a sports anchor for the morning show. He's been invested in the game for years, both being a basketball junkie and playing as a 2-year varsity basketball player. Katz produces content surrounding the NBA, NCAA, and premier high school hoops.