NBA Finals Preview: An Unexpected Yet Exciting Matchup

by Tate Hutchinson

The Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat took far different paths to reaching the 2023 NBA Finals, making this year’s NBA Finals matchup one of the most intriguing in the past decade. Denver’s season has been defined by their incredible dominance in the regular season and playoffs, while Miami went from a middling regular season team to a gritty, deep playoff team.

It is impossible to discuss the Nuggets without focusing the conversation on MVP candidate Nikola Jokić, whose incredible performances have put him squarely in the best-in-the-world position. The two-time MVP winner and 2023 runner-up averaged 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 9.8 assists in the regular season — uncharted territory for a big man. Upon his return from a nearly two-season knee injury, young guard Jamal Murray has returned to all-star form. He averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 assists, and 4.0 rebounds on the West’s top seed. 6’10” wing Michael Porter Jr. scored the ball well (17.4 ppg) with much improved defense under the coaching of Michael Malone. Strong all-around performances have been contributed by veteran wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and athletic forward Aaron Gordon, key to Denver’s league-best starting lineup. The team clinched the top seed in the West with an excellent 53-29 record, and looked to continue this dominance in the playoffs.

On the polar opposite end, the regular season Heat looked largely unremarkable. The same team that was a game away from advancing to their second NBA Finals in three years looked worse off in every way. Playoff hero Jimmy Butler failed to make the All-Star Game, averaging only 22.9 ppg. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro failed to match his 2022 scoring, with 20.1 ppg on 43.9% FG shooting. 36-year-old PG Kyle Lowry shot poorly, looking to be nearing the end of his NBA career. The one bright spot was All-Star big Bam Adebayo, averaging 20.4 points and 9.2 boards. But their bottom-ten three-point shooting and league-worst scoring spelled an early playoff exit.

The Nuggets faced the threat of likely the most competitive Western Conference in years. With the threats of the defending champion Warriors, perennial contender Clippers, newly strengthened Lakers, or the Kevin Durant and Devin Booker-led Suns, the top-seeded Nuggets were not highly favored to make the Finals. But these concerns were quickly proven wrong, as the Denver buzzsaw had no difficulties in the West. They defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves in five games, KD’s Suns in six, and LeBron’s Lakers in a four-game sweep, winning by an average of 7.7 points. This is the Nuggets’ first Finals appearance in their nearly 50-year existence, and they look to finish the job against the eighth-seeded Heat.

With 44 wins and 38 losses as the East’s 7th seed, the Miami Heat went into the play-in tournament with the possibilities of either playing the top-seeded Bucks or Celtics, or facing elimination. After losing the 7th seed to Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, they were minutes away from getting eliminated by the Chicago Bulls. But the Heat pulled through, facing the test of the NBA’s top team, the Milwaukee Bucks. But it was no challenge for the revitalized Heat. Jimmy Butler returned to his playoff dominance, and role players Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, and Max Strus had their breakouts. With injuries to Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Miami’s Herro, the Heat dispatched them in a mere five games. The run continued with a tougher six-game series against the New York Knicks, and they were on to face the championship favorites, the Boston Celtics. The Heat miraculously jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the series, but the Celtics put up a tough fight, winning Game 4 and Game 5 and threatening a never-before-seen comeback. The Heat were inches away from winning Game 6 in Miami, but a no-look Derrick White putback sent the series to a seventh game, this time in Boston. The Heat played incredibly well, with a 103-84 victory on Monday to advance to their seventh appearance in the NBA Finals.

The Heat likely face their toughest test yet, facing Jokić and the unstoppable Denver Nuggets. With both teams having powerful all-around rotations, the star matchups will define the NBA Finals. Can Bam Adebayo keep up with the offensive potency of Jokić? Can the Heat’s young guards overcome the perimeter defense of the Nuggets? Will Jimmy Butler continue his electric playoff performances? I predict it to be a tough series, but I anticipate the Denver Nuggets taking home their first-ever Larry O’Brien trophy in six games.

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