On the eve of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Boston, star Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat had unerring confidence they would win. Despite blowing a three-game lead in the series, it perhaps raised eyebrows how steadfastly he believed they would succeed. So it proved, as the Heat ultimately dispatched and dismantled Boston in the deciding game. Butler was his usual indomitable self alongside their formidable defense. Furthermore, Head Coach Erik Spoelstra continues to coach rings around his rivals. These factors have seen the Heat complete their unlikely run to the NBA Finals, despite losing their first play-in game as an eighth seed.
Conversely, Miami’s opponents in these NBA Finals, the Denver Nuggets, have steamrolled their way through the regular season and playoffs. Denver clinched the one seed comfortably and has terrorized their opponents in the playoffs with a 12-3 record, including sweeping the Lakers in the Conference Finals. They’re led by Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, who is proving he’s the best player on the planet right now. It’s these contrasting styles which make this such an intriguing NBA Finals matchup.
I believe there are three key matchups that will decide these NBA Finals. So let’s do a deep dive into each one, including my prediction.
3 Key Matchups That Will Decide NBA Finals
NBA Finals Matchup No. 1 – Nikola Jokic vs Bam Adebayo:
Is Nikola Jokic the best player on the planet?
Jokic has truly arrived in this year’s playoffs- he’s been utterly sensational in every game. His numbers testify to this: Jokic is averaging just under 30 points per game, with 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists. Averaging a triple-double is sublime enough, but how about on a ridiculously efficient 47 percent from deep and 54 percent overall from the field? He was simply unreal against the Lakers. Hitting so many crazy threes despite Anthony Davis being all over him. It got to the point Davis would just look at him and shake his head. As if thinking to himself, ‘Really?’ and simply ‘respect.’ He put on a masterclass in the playoffs. He had a 53-point game against Durant and the Suns and a ridiculous 21-rebound game against the Lakers, along with 34 points and 14 assists.
Jokic is a few stones heavier and a few inches taller than his opposite number Bam. He also has the footwork to get past him. The stats back that up, according to NBA.com’s matchup data: Jokic is shooting 17-27 against Bam as his primary defender over the past two seasons. Although Jokic powers over the Heat’s bigs, Spoelstra could use Bam’s versatility to stop their other shooters and perhaps matchup Kevin Love and Cody Zeller against Jokic. This would allow Bam Adebayo to use his versatility to stop the Nuggets’ other lethal shooters.
However, Jokic also is incredible at getting everyone around him involved. He can essentially play point guard from the five, dishing from the high post, creating open shots, and setting screens as well as anyone. Offensively the multiple MVP Jokic doesn’t have a weakness to his game. He’s too big, too smart, and can shoot from anywhere.
How Can Bam succeed in NBA Finals?
Standing in his way of an NBA title is perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Bam Adebayo. Bam has the length and versatility to cause Jokic problems. Four-time All-Defense Bam is able to defend all five positions at an extremely high level. He should be able to force Jokic into difficult shots and live with the results.
Another strategy Bam could tire Jokic out enough for him to do damage to him on the offensive end. Bam averaged 20 points per game and 54 percent shooting in the regular season on offense. Jokic doesn’t protect the paint particularly well, so this is an area where Bam can be dangerous- attacking Jokic on the offensive end. He could be used similarly to Jokic on offense, as he’s a solid distributor from the Center position. For instance, racking up seven assists in the deciding game against the Celtics. Look for Bam to set hard screens and be extremely physical in the paint whilst finding open shooters.
One of the best defenders in the league against potentially the best player in the game today? Intriguing. Whoever comes out on top likely decides the series. Overall, my money’s on Jokic.
NBA Finals Matchup No. 2 – The Coaches: Erik Spoelstra vs Mike Malone
If Jokic is perhaps the best player in the game, almost certainly Spoelstra is the best coach in the NBA. He’s solidified that crown with a masterful job on the sidelines, outcoaching everyone. He helped knock off Mike Budenholzer of the first-seeded Bucks in the first round. Mike should feel aggrieved that it cost him his job. As a title-winning coach and Giannis Antetokounmpo being hurt in this series, it felt unfair on a class coach and person. Nevertheless, Spoelstra pushed all the right buttons to send the Bucks home in the first round.
Next up, against Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks, again as underdogs against an excellent coach, he out-schemed and outmaneuvered Thibodeau at every turn. Julius Randle was schemed out of the series, and the Heat’s zone defense forced the Knicks to have to score from three. In the entire playoffs, only Jalen Brunson had any success against this Heat defense. It wasn’t nearly enough to stop Miami.
Most recently, against Finals favorites, the Celtics- Spoelstra again out-schemed his opposite, Joe Mazzulla. Similar to the Knicks series, the Heat went to a zone defense and forced Boston into a one-and-done possession three-point shooting team. Boston was hapless against the zone shooting 8-46 from threes. Including several dreadful half-court possessions in the deciding game. Meanwhile, the Heat shut down the paint. Offensively, they moved the ball selflessly and played as a team and as a united front, always playing best in the most clutch moments.
Spoelstra has done an admirable job all year finding ways to win with their backs to the wall. He seems prepared for every eventuality and every in-game situation. Spoelstra is a huge advantage on the sidelines. It beggars belief that Lebron James reportedly tried to force him out during LeBron’s Miami days.
Mike Malone’s Juggernaut Nuggets
The saying ‘teamwork makes the dream work’ is particularly prevalent for Malone’s Nuggets, as they are second in the NBA in assists. They are a selfless and dominant team. Malone’s great strength is on the defensive end. Ever since his hiring in 2015, the Nuggets have been in the top half of the league in opposition points per game- top ten this year. The longtime assistant around the league has rewarded Denver’s patience with steady success. 46 wins in 2017; 54 in ’18; plus a Conference Finals appearance in 2020. Making the playoffs the last two seasons. This season has been his best by far- they have a team that can dominate you in the paint and on the glass. With Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Kentavius Caldwell-Pope providing outside shooting. Plus, Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green provide terrific depth.
A mark of a great coach is if he can get his squad to up its level in the playoffs. They’ve most certainly done that.
This playoffs Nuggets have been a juggernaut offense, ranking first in offensive rating and net rating. Dominating in every facet of the game. According to NBA.com, the Nuggets have outscored their opponents by 125 points this playoffs- the best mark in five years for a NBA Finals team. They are also unbeaten at home, 8-0.
With a top-ten defense, a team that shares the ball led by superstar Jokic- this Nuggets team has very few- if any, weaknesses to exploit.
NBA Finals Matchup No. 3 – The Battle of the Assassins: Jimmy Butler vs Jamal Murray
This is such an intriguing matchup. Look for Butler to switch up on Murray. Jimmy Butler- as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, will fancy himself stopping one of the playoffs hottest players in Murray.
Murray, who averaged 20 PPG in the regular season, saw his average jump up to 27.7 points in the playoffs. Murray is very close to averaging the vaunted 50/40/90 in these playoffs. With 48 percent from the field, 39.8 percent from three, and 93 percent from free throw range.
Indeed, reaching that vaunted mark in their sweep of the Lakers, including averaging 32 points in that series and a remarkable 54 percent shooting. Murray and Jokic form a formidable dynamic duo. With Murray’s incredible footwork and efficiency, he’s incredibly difficult to stop. He also loves the biggest stage. In the 2020 playoffs, he had multiple 50-point games and two 40-point games, helping the Nuggets reach the Conference Finals prior to his injury.
Murray deserves a lot of credit for coming back from missing all of last season due to a knee injury to torch teams the way he has all this season. There are a select few guards in the NBA that can do what Murray does in the postseason in his career to date. Averaging 25 points and 40 percent from three in his three playoff seasons. It’s going to be a fun series to watch Jokic and Murray on the offensive end.
Jimmy Butler Is One of the All-Time Playoff Greats
Butler is cementing his legacy in this playoff run. Butler is in his second NBA Finals in four seasons, coming off Conference Finals MVP after his majestic series against the Celtics. There are few people in the game as competitive and fiery as Jimmy Butler. Not only is he unafraid of the game’s biggest challenges, but he also thrives within it. The 6x All-Star and 5x All-NBA player is by far the Heat’s biggest threat. He put the Bucks, Knicks, and Celtics to the sword so far. Whilst utterly demolishing them and dispiriting them on both ends of the court.
In these playoffs, he’s put up 28 points per game, 7 rebounds, and 5.7 assists on 48 percent shooting. Not only is he terrific offensively, but he’s also one of the game’s best defenders. This is what makes the Heat such a special team; their best player offensively is also their leader defensively. That is no mean feat considering all the excellent defenders on the Heat’s roster. With his 12 years of playoff appearances under his belt, he has the experience and know-how to see the Heat through. If it comes down to a Game 7, few would bet against Butler winning the day.
NBA Finals Prediction:
Miami and Denver will be much more evenly matched than the prognosticators are saying. The Heat are thriving as underdogs. They have a team well drilled and undaunted. They have a tremendous team spirit and are extremely physical. Miami has an uncanny ability to win ‘games in the mud’ when required, to quote their coach. If it’s a close series, don’t discount Jimmy Butler as one of the playoff greats seeing it through for them to complete history. I can foresee Spoelstra switching Bam on to Murray on occasion and will ask Kevin Love to match Jokic’s size. On offense, slow the pace down to a half-court game and turn it into a war of attrition.
However, I can’t look beyond Denver. They have the best offense in the playoffs. With Jokic on the court, they pummel opponents, including Miami, in the past. Oh, and if you can somehow stop the former MVP from scoring, he’s also one of the game’s best passers, with Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon able to beat teams. Denver’s GM has done a wonderful job in building such a juggernaut on both ends of the court, with terrific depth.
Look for Jokic to play at the high post or the elbow and dish to Jamal Murray for open looks. Gordon will also be available to cut to the rim or be open in the corner. Kentavius Caldwell-Pope and Jeff Green are seasoned pros and lethal shooters also. Denver is also unbeaten at home in the playoffs, which will likely continue in this series and decide the NBA Finals.
Prediction: Denver Nuggets in 6. Nikola Jokic is the Finals MVP.