DENVER — It was said that the Denver Nuggets had no chance to reach this point. They would flirt with excellence, then Catfish their fans and affirm national critics with an ill-timed fizzle.
The days of being too young, too inconsistent, and too hurt are over. The Nuggets have matured and evolved, not only advancing to their first NBA Finals, but arriving as a heavy favorite beginning with Game 1 on Denver7 on Thursday night at Ball Arena.
Nuggets in the NBA Finals: Here's the schedule of games, airing on Denver7
They knew when they were going to play for a week. Monday night they found out who they will face. The Heat upset the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, reaching the championship round for the sixth time in the past 13 seasons.
While some associate the Nuggets with the 2007 Rockies — a misguided comparison given Denver's excellence throughout the season — the Heat are more miraculous. They lost a play-in game to the Hawks, then went to work. They are talented, smart, and have found their three-point stroke in the postseason, improving from one of the league's worst to the best.
But on paper, Denver is better. My Denver7 keys to the Nuggets' first world title:
Nikola Jokić is writing a diary of a havoc for the ages. He is averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists per game in the playoffs. He is the fourth player ever to average a triple double in a single postseason run, joining Jason Kidd, Oscar Robertson, and Russell Westbrook. The difference? Those three were all guards. Jokić is a point center. Miami's Bam Adebayo cannot consistently defend him well and will require help. Jokić must play great for the Nuggets to win, and there's nothing to suggest he won't given his talent and unselfishness that have defined this team.
In the Zone
Adebayo is giving away roughly 30 pounds and four inches to Jokić. At best, he can slow Jokić. The Heat like to move Adebayo around as a rim protector, but I am not sure how much switching he will do against Denver. Look for the Heat to employ a zone defense. It allows for more help on Jokić, but his counter will be to keep the ball, opening shots for wings like Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
We can officially junk the "Bubble Jamal" nickname. It's "Playoff Jamal" now. He averages 16.9 points per game in the regular season in his career, compared to 25.4 in the playoffs. He has followed suit this spring: (20.0 regular season, 27.7 postseason). Murray excels in the two-man game with Jokić. Where he changes games is with furious flurries of three-pointers. He doesn't need to be great for Denver to win. Good will suffice.
Mismatch for MPJ
Michael Porter Jr. was once the top high school player in the country, but a back injury made him available to Denver with the 14th overall pick in 2018. He has transformed from a one-dimensional shooter and defensive liability into a fully fitted role player. He can carry the offense for a quarter with 3-pointers but is now capable of consistently winning on the boards. His size cannot be overlooked when eyeing mismatches in this series, especially if Caleb Martin starts for the Heat.
Make Himmy Jimmy
Whoever you think you are, he is. Jimmy Butler has been cold-blooded in the playoffs, thus the nickname "Himmy." Like Murray, the difference in Butler's regular season and playoff numbers remain striking. Butler averaged 22.9 points during the season and sits at 28.5 in the postseason. He is elite at getting to spots on the floor to create shots, moving deliberately and patiently. He will get his, but the key is to prevent him from going off in the fourth quarter. When the Heat get hot from 3, they are dangerous. They shot 34.4% during the regular season, and are at 39% in the playoffs. The number to remember? They are 6-2 when they make 40%.
Know Your Role
Both these teams feature outstanding role players. Caleb Martin has been terrific for the Heat, serving as their catalyst on Monday. Gabe Vincent and Max Strus have been strong, playing without fear. And Tyler Herro, a true scorer, might return from a broken right hand during this series. Veterans Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love bring a battery of big-game experience. Denver's rotation has shortened to almost seven players, but Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have carried their water. It's obvious they have been in these situations before. There is no panic. It remains to be seen how much Christian Braun and Jeff Green will see the floor after their bouts of ineffectiveness this postseason.
Denver's Mike Malone deserves respect. He is a good coach, a passionate advocate for his players and has pushed all the right buttons. Win this title, and he we will get his well-deserved flowers. The goal in this series is to match with Erik Spoelstra, who has been the postseason's best boss. He badly outmatched Boston Joe Mazzulla. Malone will be tested and given the chip on his shoulder — it's more like a can of Pringles — I expect his best over the next two weeks as the Nuggets close out the Heat in Miami just like the Avs did to the Panthers for their first title.
RENCK PREDICTION: Nuggets in six.