It has been a wild and totally unpredictable NBA playoffs this year. We had the first 10 seeds win their play-in games with the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder, the Sacramento Kings took the defending champion Golden State Warriors to seven games in the first round and two play-in teams made the conference finals.
This is the playoffs that many NBA fans, including myself, have been hoping for. Gone are the days of expecting LeBron or Warriors in Finals every year with a clear winner in sight.
While the final two teams left are not what the NBA media was hoping for (cough, cough, ESPN), I think this should be one of the most interesting and entertaining NBA Finals in a long time. The Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets have some of the most interesting players, coaches and story lines coming into what could be the final four games of the NBA season. Jimmy Butler vs. Nikola Jokic and Erik Spoelstra vs. Micheal Malone are going to be epic duels to watch.
Lets recap how each team made their own historic run:
Denver Nuggets - 53-29 - No. 1 Seed:
The best team out west for the entire season makes the Finals, what a shocker right? Seriously though, from the way most people perceived the Nuggets heading into the Western Conference Finals, they seemed to be the underdog agaisnt the Los Angeles Lakers. All the media attention was on LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers.
After the Nuggets handled their business agaisnt the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round and embarrassed the Phoenix Suns in the second round, the Lakers seemed to be that final test to prove the casual fan that they were championship material.
Well, Denver passed that test with flying colors as they swept the Lakers to make it to their first NBA Finals in franchise history. The Nuggets outplayed the Lakers in nearly every single statistical category in the series including points, rebounds and assists. While every game of the series except game three finished within six points or less, the Nuggets were in control in pretty much every game.
Jokic has had the quietest 30-point triple-double from an NBA superstar this playoffs, with averages of 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists. If a more "marketable," star was putting up these numbers, you wouldn't have heard the end of it from NBA media.
Even with Jokic putting up those historic numbers this run would not have been possible without his two-costars finally being healthy. Jamal Murray has kept up his reputation as a playoff performer as he with a Steph Curry like performance in the conference finals, averaging 32.7 points on 52% from the field, 40.5% from beyond the arc and 92.5% from the free throw line.
Micheal Porter Jr has also been a solid contributor on the offensive end these playoffs behind Jokic and Murray as he's been putting up 14.4 points per game while grabbing eight rebounds per contest.
It hasn't just been the these stars shoulders though, as the Nuggets have one of the best supporting casts in all of basketball. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon have been tremendous defends on the perimeter to take the pressure off of the three offensive stars. It was on the defensive end with Gordon that punched the Nuggets ticket to the Finals.
There are so many other guys for the Nuggets who have all played their role in helping this team make history like Bruce Brown, Jeff Green and even rookie Christian Braun.
This team has the star power, the depth and the health to win their first NBA title in franchise history. While the team they will be facing maybe less talented, they will give them a fight they will never forget.
Miami Heat - 44-38 - No. 8 Seed:
Whats to say about this team that hasn't been said. The sheer will of Jimmy Butler and Heat culture have carried the Heat to becoming the second No. 8 seed to make the NBA Finals and the teams second Finals appearance in four years.
Their road here got off to a rocky start as they hosted the first game of the play-in agaisnt the Atlanta Hawks. It's hard to imagine that this Heat team was thoroughly dominated by the Hawks at home, 116-105. Even with that loss they had one more chance to make into the playoffs as the eight-seed when they took on the No. 10 seed Bulls.
In that game the Heat found themselves down by three, 90-87, with 3:45 to play. Behind a combined 62 points from Butler and fellow former Bull Max Strus, the Heat ended the game on a 15-1 run and punched their ticket to the playoffs to take on a familiar foe in the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks came into the series as the No. 1 seed and had the best record in the NBA, primed for another title run. However, "Himmy Butler," had different ideas as he put on one of the most impressive performances in playoff history. Butler in the final two games of the series (after taking a 2-1 series lead) scored a combined 98 points, including the game tying basket in game five in Milwaukee. Behind his efforts, the Heat upset the No. 1 seed Bucks and made them the worst one seed in NBA history by losing in five games. The series on the whole, Butler averaged 37.5 points, 4.8 assists and 4.4 rebounds. All of this came after Tyler Herro broke his hand in game one.
Miami would then take care of business agaisnt the New York Knicks in the second round in six games. Bam Adebayo had a much better series compared to the first round as he would average 18.7 points and 9.7 rebounds, while Strus kept up his hot shooting with 14.7 points and 35.4% from the three point line. The Heat would make it back to their third conference finals in four seasons and take on the same team as the previous two: the Boston Celtics.
This series was truly an interesting one to say the least. Miami jumped out to a 3-0 series lead after taking the first two games in Boston and then game three in Miami. Butler put on another master class in game one, scoring 35 points including eight of the last 10 points for the Heat to put the Celtics away.
Game three belonged to Gabe Vincent as he put up a career high 29 points as the Heat blew out the Celtics 128-102 and looked to make both conference finals a sweep. That wouldn't be the case as the Celtics came out swinging in the next two games, blowing out the Heat by an average of 15 points per game. Then the chaos came to game six back in Miami.
In one of the most mind boggling games I have ever seen, the Heat put on the comeback attempt as they trailed by 10 points with just under five minutes to play. Butler, who had just 10 points entering the fourth quarter started what he does best, getting buckets. The former Marquette Golden Eagle shined as he poured in 14 points including three free throws with three seconds left to give the Heat a one point lead.
Boston would call a timeout and on the inbounds play, Marcus Smart of all people took a three which rimmed out, but Derrick White beat Strus to the ball and tipped it in with 0.1 seconds left to send the series to seven games. I'm sure like a lot of you I was stunned at what had just happened and initially thought that Miami had survived to move on. However, there was still one more game to play in Boston.
After a rough game six, Butler came back with a vengeance in game seven, putting in 28 points as Miami dominated the Celtics in-front of their home fans, 103-84.
Miami has been one of the most unusual teams in a playoff that has seen so much craziness. This same Heat team that took down east titans like the Celtics and Bucks were swept by the Chicago Bulls in the regular season. They lost to the Atlanta Hawks at home and were just under four minutes away from not even making the playoffs this year, but when you have the type of the players the Heat have, it's easy to see why they have made it this far.
Outside of Butler and Strus there are so many players who have had big moments throughout these playoffs. Kyle Lowry dipping into some of his 2019 playoff form with the Raptors, Gabe Vincent and Duncan Robinson providing amazing shooting from the outside. Even an aging Kevin Love and Cody Zeller have provided quality minutes to let Butler and Adebayo rest in key spots.
Saving the best for last, Caleb Martin played like an all-star in the East finals. Martin averaged 19.3 points per game while shooting 60% from the field and 49% from three. Martin was undrafted (like many of his fellow teammates) out of Nevada and averaged 15 minutes a game for the Charlotte Hornets just two years ago. Now he was nearly named as the conference finals MVP and is still with Miami for one more season at 6.5 million dollars.
What Pat Riley and Erik Spolestra have been able to do with finding so many diamonds in the rough and make them quality role players should be studied so that other teams can learn how they do it.
That's not to say the Heat are perfect, there have been lapses and sometimes they can go cold from beyond the arc, but when you have a team that embodies the phrase "he's got that dog in him," anything is possible.
Key Matchup: Nikola Jokic vs. Bam Adebayo
This matchup will determine who wins this series. I think the other players around these two big men are very similar in terms of talent, with maybe a slight edge to Miami with Jimmy Butler over Jamal Murray. Regardless, if Bam can do anything to slow down "The Joker," then this is a very winnable series for Miami. The question is if Bam can really do it, as Jokic seems to love playing agaisnt Miami. Jokic has had a triple-double in three of his last five games against the Heat, including a 19 point, 12 rebound and 12 assist game Dec. 30 in Denver.
Obviously both teams have changed drastically from then, but Jokic has proved that he can do it agaisnt anyone. Whether it was Rudy Gobert, Deandre Ayton or Anthony Davis. I think has enough mobility to keep up with Jokic, it's just going to come down to if Adebayo's athleticism can make up for the size difference between the two.
Championship Prediction: Heat in 7
This is such a tough Finals to pick with both teams having some great strengths and weaknesses the other side can take advantage of. In the end I am going to say that it will be Miami that will get it done in seven games. If the Heat want a chance to win this series it will have to go seven, but I believe they can get it done. They have taken down some fantastic opponents on this run, whatever you want to say about Milwaukee's collapse and Boston's underachieving. It takes a good team to take advantage of your opponent and do what this team has done.
Denver is another beast entirely, but I think if the role players for Miami can continue to show up in big spots like they have this entire post season then it will be the Heat who will raise the Larry O'Brien trophy for the fourth time in franchise history.