The Four Matchups That Will Determine The 2023 NBA Finals

Well, an NBA Finals matchup between the Denver Nuggets and the Miami Heat is a fun one, no? There are plenty of similarities between the two teams, even if one steamrolled their way to the Finals from day one of the 2022-23 regular season and the other needed to pull off a big comeback against the Chicago Bulls in the Play-In Tournament to even qualify for the 8-seed.

Both teams can be very annoying about a perceived lack of respect but are extremely good about harnessing this as a form of motivation. Michael Malone surely seems like the most online coach in the league, and one ESPN graphic about what their internal projections suggested would happen in the Eastern Conference Finals turned into a rallying cry for Heat fans. Both are built around two of the best Draft finds of the last decade or so, as Jimmy Butler went 30th overall to the Chicago Bulls in 2011 and Nikola Jokic, perhaps the best Draft pick of all-time, went 41st overall in 2014. Their stars are amplified by their role players, who in turn amplify their stars, all of whom exist in a basketball ecosystem built by an elite head coach. As a result, they’re a pair of teams with clear, uncompromising visions of how they want to go about their business, which has both sides four wins away from lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Things will start on Thursday night in Denver, where an ultra-rested Nuggets team will play host to the Heat a mere three days after they took down the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Here, we’ll look at the four matchups that should end up deciding how things are going to go down.

Erik Spoelstra vs. Michael Malone

Spoelstra is, quite possibly, the best basketball coach on the planet, someone who is willing to get creative and do whatever is necessary to throw an opponent off their game. If he needs to go zone, he’ll go zone. If he sees a weak link in the opposing team’s defense, it’s getting attacked. If Kyle Lowry is playing out of his mind and Jimmy Butler’s having an off night, he’ll trust Lowry to get them across the finish line. If he decides the best option is to have Gabe Vincent guard the opposing team’s center so Bam Adebayo can do other stuff on defense, sure, why not.

He’s also no stranger to the magnitude of playing in the NBA Finals, something that is brand new to Malone. For all of the incredible things that he has done in his eight years at the helm of the Nuggets, Malone has never led a team into the pressure cooker to end all pressure cookers — every mistake is a little more deadly, every run is a little harder to overcome.

What Malone has done, however, is put together a team and a system that has made the Nuggets the overwhelming favorites entering the Finals. Denver has won six games in a row, rolled through the postseason (they’ve lost three times on this run by a combined 18 points), and have been consistently excellent ever since Game 1 of the opening round against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Malone has pressed the right button at every turn, which is why they’re here right now.

Spoelstra is going to have something weird up his sleeves in this series because that’s just what he does. As issues pop up, he’ll constantly tinker in an effort to find solutions and try to make Malone have to come up with a response. Maybe Denver is good enough that its Plan A is just too much for Miami to overcome, but Spoelstra is the best coach in the league at finding a thing that just works. Can he do that this time? And if he can, how does Malone respond?

Jimmy Butler vs. Denver’s army of guys who will try to guard Jimmy Butler

Even as Butler’s efficiency numbers fell off while the series against Boston went along — he hit 38.7 percent of his shots from the field over the final five games of the series — his gravity and ability to attack the defense was something that the Celtics needed to respect all series long. It certainly did not help that Butler was usually able to figure out whomever Boston threw at him, whether that was Jayson Tatum, or Marcus Smart, or Derrick White, or Grant Williams, etc.

Butler’s a tricky guy to guard, someone who has the ability to get by bigger guys and overpower smaller guys, all with a bag of tricks that can be tough to stop and the ability to grift his way to the free throw line if need be. He’ll get his most nights, but the ace Denver should have up its sleeve is a handful of players who can battle with him — Aaron Gordon is theoretically the perfect guy to throw at Butler, as he’s just as big but doesn’t have to sacrifice quickness, and he’s generally done a very good job of keeping himself out of foul trouble.

Does Malone essentially try to match Butler’s minutes with Gordon? Or does he trust other guys, namely Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown, both of whom would try to make up for their lack of size through sheer tenacity and defensive smarts? Does he hope that Jeff Green or Christian Braun can do a job against Butler in the event of an emergency? How hard of a time will Butler have getting switches he likes against Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., or Nikola Jokic?

And if he is able to get to the rim, how exactly does Denver plan on slowing him down? The team had the third-worst defensive field goal percentage in the restricted area during the regular season, although they have been better in the playoffs. There is a case to be made that collapsing on Butler around the rim, should he get there, is asking for trouble, as Miami is coming off of a series where their shooters routinely demolished Boston any time they got decent looks and Butler is as good as it gets at absorbing contact and getting to the free throw line.

Having said all of this: There are few teams in the NBA capable of slowing down an elite wing like Butler better than the Nuggets. If Gordon can take on the assignment all on his own, then Denver’s gonna have a chance to end this series quickly.

Nikola Jokic vs. Bam Adebayo

According to’s tracking stats, Adebayo unsurprisingly spent the most time as Jokic’s primary defender in the two regular season matchups against the Nuggets this year. In second place? That would be Orlando Robinson, a big man on a two-way deal who is not on the Heat’s playoff roster.

There is no more difficult defensive assignment in the sport than Jokic, and while we presume that at least one of Kevin Love or Cody Zeller will get tasked with being a big body when Adebayo needs to rest, a reasonably safe bet is that if Adebayo can’t slow Jokic down a little, no one on the Heat can. This, then, leads to a question: Might the best idea for Spoelstra be to take a page out of Darvin Ham’s playbook?

Ham didn’t always have Anthony Davis guard Jokic 1-on-1 during the Western Conference Finals — much was made after Game 1 about how Rui Hachimura was put on Jokic, which let Davis roam around and have his fingerprints all over the place. While he’d still guard Jokic, Davis frequently found himself on Gordon or Green, with Hachimura and LeBron James spending plenty of time on Jokic over the course of the series. It’s worth noting, of course, that the Western Conference Finals ended with the Nuggets sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers, with Denver posting an insane 122.3 offensive rating against the vaunted Laker defense.

Getting to use Adebayo as a roamer — someone who takes away passing lanes and frees himself up to disrupt the flow of an offense — would be a way to take advantage of his skill-set on defense, although there’s no real weak link to put him on, as the Nuggets’ starting lineup around Jokic is three elite shooters (Murray, Porter, Caldwell-Pope) and an elite cutter/offensive rebounder who also found a groove from three to end the Lakers series in Gordon. Jokic would eat one of Miami’s bench bigs alive, while Butler or Caleb Martin would almost certainly get overpowered. Adebayo manning him up might just be the best option, even if it’s very hard for there to be any good options when it comes to slowing down the league MVP.

Miami vs. Three-Point Regression

Here is maybe my favorite stat from the Eastern Conference Finals: Boston took 212 threes classified as “Open” (the closest defender was 4-6 feet away) or “Wide Open” (6+ feet). Miami took 162. Despite this, Miami made 79 of those shots (48.8 percent). Boston made 71 (33.5 percent).

Being that hot from three just does not happen, and that’s before we get into stuff like “Tyler Herro is hurt” and “Miami was 27th in the league in three-point field goal percentage in the regular season.” It’s also a pretty necessary piece of the puzzle for a team that wants to pull off an upset, especially one that is going up against an offense as high-octane as Denver. As noted in the last section, the Nuggets’ offense has been unstoppable throughout the postseason, and barring some bad shooting luck and/or the Heat’s defense junking things up in a way they cannot figure out, that’s going to continue.

As such, Miami’s army of shooters are going to need to continue their team-wide heater. Vincent, Robinson, Martin, and maybe Love/Haywood Highsmith staying hot is crucial. Lowry and Max Strus finding their form after being just a little off against Boston is crucial. Butler knocking down threes on the rare occasions that he takes them is crucial. Perhaps Herro coming back from a broken hand — which could come in Game 3 of the Finals, per a report from Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report — could provide some scoring punch and fresh legs for a team that just came off of a 7-game war and now has to deal with the altitude in Denver against a Nuggets team that hasn’t played in more than a week.

Denver will present a different challenge than Boston, but for Miami, the objective remains the same: Stay hot from three and give yourselves a chance to pull off yet another upset.