I was rooting for four teams when these playoffs started. In no particular order: The Denver Nuggets, home of super-daughter Alissa and the best player in the world. The Warriors, with the incomparable Steph Curry, coached by former Spur and Pop friend Steve Kerr. The Bucks, with Coach Bud (R.I.P.), Giannis, and the back-to-back NBA Teammate of the Year, Jrue Holiday. And finally, the Miami Heat, with the best coach in the league (non-Popovich division), Playoff Jimmy Freakin’ Butler and Should-Have-Been-a-Spur Duncan Robinson.
We all know what happened to the Warriors and the Bucks. A week ago, it looked like I would easily have two of my non-Spur favorite teams in the Finals. Both the Nuggets and the Heat were up 3-0, and we were all seeing the stats — 149 times teams had gone up 3-0 in a seven game series, 149 times those teams won the series. One stat I never saw: How often the team that was down 3-0 was objectively the better team, both in the season record and overall talent. My guess is that the vast majority of the 3-0 leads were held by the higher seed about to sweep a lesser team.
That is exactly what happened in the West. Denver led the Western Conference the entire regular season before dominating weaker opponents to get to the Western Conference Finals against the 7th seeded Lakers. And while the Lakers made each of the four games fairly close, I don’t think anyone can dispute that the Nuggets were the better team. It was not surprising that they turned their 3-0 lead over the Lakers into a sweep.
Contrast that with the Eastern Conference which had the rare situation of a vastly lower seed, the 8-seed Miami Heat with a stunning 3-0 lead over the 2-seed Celtics. The Celtics were also the defending Eastern Conference champs while the Heat had been outscored for the season and were the lowest scoring team among all 16 playoff teams. The Heat were also missing their second leading scorer, Tyler Herro, who broke his hand early in the first round. Once the Celtics won Game Four on the road, cutting the series lead to 3-1, all the 3-0 series stats became meaningless.
Now, it was the Celtics who had two of the next three at home. They won easily in Game Five, and then Derrick White bailed them out in Game Six in Miami. So all the Celtics had to do to break that 149 series streak was win Game Seven at home. Spoiler alert: they did not. Instead, the Heat led by double figures virtually throughout the game. Whenever the Celtics cut the lead to under ten, the Heat responded each and every time. Jayson Tatum’s sprained ankle on the first play of the game certainly affected things, especially because it forced Jaylen Brown to dribble more than any Celtics fan wanted, leading Brown to commit 8 turnovers. As great as Brown played all season, each year in the playoffs, teams learn to attack the Brown dribble, especially with his left hand.
After the game, Jimmy Butler resisted an offer to hold the Eastern Conference trophy with a classic Jimmy Buckets line: ”I’ll hold the next one.” Gotta love that guy.
Speaking of great quotes, the Joker’s response to a question about whether he is the best player on the Nuggets: “Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. And I’m cool with that.” Gotta love that guy.
So who to root for in the Finals? Many of us still have fond memories of the 2020 Bubble Heat in the Finals, in which they gave the more talented Lakers team all it could handle but still lost in 6 games. Sounds a bit like this year, where the Nuggets appear to have more talent — just as the Celtics and Bucks did, only to lose to the Heat despite being heavily favored. And the Heat have a bunch of players who, like me, were undrafted out of college. The Heat almost feel like a lower-seeded March Madness team on a run to the Final Four despite having a bunch of guys who weren’t even recruited by the blue-blood schools.
On the flip side, we have a rare underrated number one seed led by Nikola Jokic, who has supplanted My Man Manu as the best second round pick ever. The Nuggets are also Spurs brethren as two of the four ex-ABA teams who “merged” with the NBA back in the day. If the Nuggets win, they will join the Spurs as the only ex-ABA teams to win the crown, as the Pacers and the Nets have never won it all, though both have made the Finals.
The Nuggets skated through the playoffs thus far, which also means they have been able to rest while the Heat had to play three extra games. That rest may be especially important with the first two games played at altitude in Denver, though the Heat are more battle tested from their more recent games. Rust vs. Rest, perhaps.
Several things I will be watching:
- Unlike the Eastern Conference Finals, where Erik Spoelstra had a clear experience edge over his Boston counterpart, Denver coach Mike Malone is every bit Spoelstra’s equal. I also enjoy Malone’s end-of-quarter interviews which are always filled with stats: ”Lisa, we allowed them to shoot 62% from inside the three point line, but we did get 5 offensive rebounds on our 12 missed shots, which made up for the 3 live ball turnovers we had with more than 10 seconds on the shot clock.” With Malone, we rarely get to the mandatory two questions the coaches are required to tolerate.
- Which team will make more threes? Both shoot a lot of them, but in the regular season the Nuggets shot them well, while the Heat did not. In the playoffs, both have shot the three well and often. The Heat will need to continue to do the same to keep up with the Nuggets. Having Duncan Robinson play significant minutes will help with that. By the way, anyone else notice how he has gotten better at back cuts for lay-ups when overplayed?
- Jokic vs. Bam Adebayo. While Bam is an excellent defender, at 6’9’’ is he big and long enough to cover the Joker? And on the other end, can Bam make Joker work? As good as he is as a passer, Bam is often not a serious threat to score. While Butler took the blame for his poor shooting in Game Six, less people commented on Bam’s 4-16 outing in a game the Heat seemingly had to win. Unless Bam has some effective aggressiveness against the Nuggets, the Heat will be in trouble.
I ran a poll of my basketball group, which is split as to who they want to win. The last count for rooting interest was 8 for Denver, 6 for the Heat, but even that slight edge may be more of a West vs. East thing, as we are all in Los Angeles. A majority predict the Nuggets will win, which seems like the right call. For one thing, the Nuggets are bigger at almost every position (especially center), and just as talented, if not more so. (But Playoff Jimmy is only on one team, and that team is the Heat.)
For me, which team I root for once the games begin will probably come down to a “game-time decision”: I think I will just turn on the television for Game One, and see which way my heart goes.
Who are you rooting for to win the NBA Finals?
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