The NBA Finals are here, and in a matchup few prognosticated before the season, the Nuggets will take on the Heat. Denver finished as the top seed in the West, while Miami squeaked into the postseason as an eight-seed via the play-in tournament. Both, though, have been impressive during the playoffs, toppling conference stalwarts and Hall of Fame talents en route to the championship round.
Before the series tips off, the Sports Illustrated NBA staff makes their predictions for the most important matchups, players, and who will win.
Matchup to watch
Chris Herring: It’s Joker and Bam. As one of the most versatile stoppers in the league, and one of the Heat’s true big men, Bam Adebayo has become a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. But like everyone else in the sport, he’s almost certainly going to have issues guarding Nikola Jokić on his own. What sort of zone coverages will Miami throw at him? Will the Heat force the ball to try to press the ball out of his hands, and make others prove they can get it done? Or is it smarter for Miami to let Jokić be a scorer while shutting off the water for the other four players?
Chris Mannix: Officially, Jokić and Adebayo, but in a way it’s Jokić vs. Erik Spoelstra. Adebayo will draw the Jokić assignment, but he won’t be alone. I expect Miami to mix up the coverages with Jokić and have all five guys bumping, grinding and swarming him on the offensive end of the floor. No one player can defend Jokić. He’s a triple-double machine and one of the NBA’s smartest players. What he’s facing is the NBA’s smartest coach, who will throw everything short of Udonis Haslem (we think) at Jokić to slow him down.
Rohan Nadkarni: Miami vs. the Jokić–Jamal Murray two-man game. Right now, the NBA at large doesn’t really have an answer for what to do when Jokić and Murray screen for each other. It’s a deadly action that can be run a number of ways, from high pick-and-rolls to handoffs, with both players able to screen or handle. Whenever things get tight for the Nuggets, they resort to letting Jokić and Murray cook together, and nobody has a great answer for how to combat them.
I would not be surprised, if at least in the fourth quarter, Miami switches Murray-Jokić actions with Jimmy Butler and Adebayo. But can Jimmy survive with Joker in the post? Can Bam stay in front of Murray without fouling? If the Heat are to have a chance, it starts with having a somewhat reasonable answer for slowing the Nuggets down.
Player to watch
Herring: A key player rejoining his team in the NBA Finals is rare. There are all sorts of questions about the sort of player Tyler Herro is and whether injecting him back into the lineup—against a club with Denver’s level of cohesion—comes with some risks defensively. Still, with the lack of offensive creation outside of Butler, Herro brings something if he’s able to return from his hand injury by the middle of the series.
Mannix: Kyle Lowry. Admit it—you thought Lowry was done. I did. You probably fired up the trade machine to see what the Heat could get for Lowry’s expiring $30 million salary next season. I did. But we have seen shades of the old Lowry, Playoff Lowry, Toronto Lowry this postseason. He’s making shots, playing defense, drawing charges and flashing familiar playmaking skills. If Lowry can dig up some more of that old magic in the Finals, he’ll be a handful for Denver. If he can’t, it will be one of the reasons the Nuggets roll.
Nadkarni: Aaron Gordon will be massive this series. Once again he’ll draw the top defensive assignment in Butler. Gordon will have to stay down on pump fakes and stay out of foul trouble, because while Denver’s options aren’t bad after him, they get dicier in trying to slow down Jimmy. Offensively, Spoelstra undoubtedly watched the Lakers ignore Gordon on the perimeter and find stretches of success. If AG can make the Heat pay consistently, he renders that strategy moot. A strong two-way showing from Gordon would go a very long way in securing the victory for Denver.
Overall prediction (and why)
Herring: Give me Denver in six. I’m petrified to pick against Miami after the way things have gone so far. But I think it’s clear that Denver has been the best club all postseason, and that the Nuggets have the best player—one the Heat will be hard-pressed to find an answer for. The Heat players know their roles so well (though throwing Herro back in could confuse things some), but the Nuggets are so fine-tuned at this point to where it’s beginning to look like destiny for them.
Mannix: Denver in six. Much respect to Miami for getting here. And if they steal Game 1, I reserve the right to revise this prediction. But Denver is so good and playing so well. Jokić won’t be fooled by the Heat’s junk defenses and Murray and Michael Porter Jr. won’t go into the kind of offensive funks we saw Boston fall into last round. I’m tempted to take the Nuggets in five, but in deference to this remarkable run, I’m going to grant the Heat a couple of wins. But unless this lengthy layoff short-circuited Denver’s momentum, the Nuggets will take home the title.
Nadkarni: Nuggets in five. I picked Miami in the last two rounds, but the magic runs out here. The league has no answers for Jokić, and the Heat are so thin in the frontcourt. Bam already struggles with this matchup, if he’s in foul trouble for even a game Miami has a major problem. No team has played as well as Denver in the playoffs, and its defense has exceeded expectations. It feels crazy to pick against the Heat, but in many ways, their season is already a massive success. The Nuggets have looked like a contender from Day 1 of the season. They will get the job done.