Another year, another new Finals match up. The Nuggets against the Heat feels broadly like the 1998-99 Finals redux, where the top seeded Spurs, led by emerging star Tim Duncan played an eight seeded Knicks team that was clearly better than its low seed and featured Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby. In this case, the Nuggets and Nikola Jokic play the role of the Spurs and Duncan. Like the Spurs, Denver has a great young big man hoping to lead his ABA team to a first NBA title. Back in 1999, the Spurs handled the Knicks relatively easily. Do the Heat have a better shot? Let’s take a peak…
How is Miami doing this?
Obviously, the emergence of “Playoff Jimmy Butler” is the starting point, as he has bumped up his scoring and minutes quite a bit (22.9 ppg in 33.4 mpg in the regular season and 28.5 ppg in 39.4 mpg). While having Butler playing bigger minutes has obviously helped, he actually has not shot better or been appreciably better overall. Yes, he’s been transcendent a few times in the playoffs but, on a whole, his TS% and advanced stats are lower than they were in the regular season and lower than his even more impressive 2021-22 playoffs. So, Butler playing huge minutes helps but that’s not nearly the whole story.
During the regular season, Miami was a slow paced (96.3, 29th in NBA) and bad offensive team (113.0, 25th in NBA). Miami has bumped up its offensive rating to 116.3 on an even slower pace (95.5). The Heat’s three-point shooting has been the driving force in improving the offense (.344% in the regular season but is up to .390% so far in the playoffs).
Miami has shot fewer threes but they are making them. Here’s a comparison of how some of their key players have done in the regular season and playoffs from three:
Vincent and Martin have gone from meh three-point shooters to really good on higher volume. The stats don’t show it but a lot of their threes have been difficult and/or off the dribble. Robinson has shot this well in the past. He’s just getting a chance to play due to Tyler Herro’s wrist injury. In all, Miami’s hot shooting feels a little anomalous.
Martin’s great play isn’t just from three, he’s shooting .714% from two as well (compared to .545% in the regular season). Granted he only takes about four two-pointers a game but that is still an insanely high percentage for a perimeter player. He literally hasn’t missed a shot in the playoffs from 10-16 feet and is shooting .786% on long twos. Put it all together and here are Martin’s advanced stats in the regular season and playoffs:
Regular Season: 11.4 PER, .086 WS48, -1.2 BPM, 0.4 VORP
Playoffs: 17.4 PER, .178 WS48, 3.8 BPM, 0.8 VORP
We all know Martin has been great but these stats really highlight just how great. For perspective, Martin’s BPM compares with that of Jalen Brunson or Lauri Markkanen. Adding an All-Star level player out of nowhere for the playoffs helps.
Can Miami stop Jokic?
Of course not. Okay so can they slow him down at all? It’s nice to see the overall perception of Jokic match how dominant he’s been via advanced stats. Jokic has been Wilt-like, leading the NBA in PER, WS, WS48, BPM, and VORP each of the last three seasons. That’s fairly incredible, even if we acknowledge that advanced stats are a bit buggy and don’t seem to properly account for his defensive shortcomings (he regularly leads the league in DBPM, which is quite a suspect assessment).
Miami has been effective using a zone defense for much of the playoffs but you wonder whether zone is a great way to handle Jokic. You also wonder whether Bam Adebayo has the size to check Jokic under any defensive theory. Per Basketball-Reference, Jokic is 10-2 against Bam for their career and has dominated him:
Limiting the sample size to this year, Denver is 2-0 against Miami and won each game by four and five points. Jokic was quite dominant and even won the first game without Jamal Murray and Miami having most of its crew available. Miami played Bam mostly at center but used deep bench big Orlando Robinson quite a bit out of necessity. This time, Miami can throw Cody Zeller at Jokic a bit but that also seems like a tough match up for Miami.
In short, the Heat’s best plan is to make Jokic work on defense and throw a lot of guys at him on the other end. This will be tough, especially when you consider how big the rest of the Denver front line is with Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr.
Let’s not forget “Playoff Jamal Murray”
For all the talk of Martin’s postseason stats, Murray has stepped it up similarly:
-Regular Season: 32.8 mpg, 20.0 ppg, .494 2FG%, .398 3FG%
-Post Season: 38.9 mpg, 29.9 ppg, .552 2FG%, .474 3FG%
Murray has shot well from every quadrant of the court in the postseason but his mid-range chops have been really impressive (.563%) and he’s been making tough contested shots. The only point guard that Miami has faced this postseason with a similar game was Brunson, who gave Miami some real trouble.
Can Denver overcome history?
Denver is a fairly average defensive team, ranking 15th in the NBA in the regular season. If they win a title, they will have worst defensive ranking for a title team since the 2000-01 Lakers, who ranked 21st in defense but were on cruise control before turning it on for the playoffs (2000-01 was the middle season of the Lakers’ threepeat and they were 1st and 7th in defense the other two title years). Outside of that anomalous team, an average defensive team has basically never won a title before.
Miami has had a great run and they are legitimately more of a 50-win team than the eight seed they ended up with but I think the size of Denver and Jokic is just too much, particularly with Murray playing so well. The Heat are not a pushover but the incredible run ends. Denver wins 4-2.