The Denver Nuggets NBA Finals Game 1 win over the Miami Heat was a convincing one. The home team took it to the Eastern Conference visitors 104-93, and it never seemed that close. A convincing win in any NBA Finals game is huge, but this one seemed to have even more significance than usual. With the way Denver dominated Miami in Game 1, it now seems that the outcome of Nuggets-Heat is already decided, and Nikola Jokic and company are destined to win the franchise’s first NBA title.
3. Nikola Jokic is the best player in the series
With all due respect to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic is the best player in this series. The big man didn’t have his most dominating stat line of the playoffs. But that proves the point even more, when 27 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds are considered a ho-hum performance for “The Joker.”
Jokic is simply on another level right now, and there is nothing the Heat can do about it.
The best way to slow Jokic down is by putting Adebayo on him. That requires a Herculean effort from the Miami center and puts him at risk of getting in foul trouble. Against the Nuggets, the Heat need everything they can get on the offensive end from Bam, and guarding Jokic means that’s not possible.
Adebayo had an excellent offensive night in his NBA Finals Game 1 effort, leading his team with 26 points, but how much longer can he keep this up while battling with Jokic on the other end?
In addition to the talent gap at the top of the rosters, the Nuggets' advantages in this area continue down the roster. Denver has four of the best six players in this series. The rankings go Jokic, Butler, Jamal Murray, Adebayo, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., and everyone else below that.
Miami had an incredible run as an 8-seed making it to the NBA Finals, but Game 1 showed the Nuggets simply have too much top-end talent for the Heat to compete with.
2. Eric Spoelstra has met his match in Michael Malone
Heat coach Eric Spoelstra is one of the best stories in basketball. He went from film room grunt to LeBron James whipping boy to one of the top coaches in the NBA. He is a major reason the Heat beat all comers in the Eastern Conference and became just the second 8-seed ever (with the 1999 New York Knicks) to make the NBA Finals.
However, the coaches Spoelstra bested to reach this point weren’t exactly Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and Red Auerbach.
Spoelstra outcoached Mike Budenholzer of the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 1, and the team fired the 1-seed coach shortly after. In Round 2, he took out Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks, and most New York fans hoped their coach would suffer the same fate.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, Spoelstra faced Joe Mazzulla, who was a back-bench assistant last season before leaping to the head spot after the Ime Udoka scandal. The Boston Celtics did well to force a Game 7 after going down 3-0, but it still wasn’t enough.
In Nuggets coach Michael Malone, Spoelstra has finally met his match. Malone is the son of a longtime NBA coach and assistant and is every bit the tactician and motivator that Spoelstra is.
Neither coach has a definitive advantage in the Nuggets-Heat series, and that takes away one of Miami’s biggest advantages, which will lead to a Nuggets trophy at the end.
1. The Heat can’t stay out of defensive mismatches with the Nuggets
The intersection of the talent gap and the coaching matchup in the Nuggets’ NBA Finals Game 1 win came when Denver had the ball.
As mentioned above, Bam Adebayo has to be on Nikola Jokic for the Heat to have a chance. And Jimmy Butler must guard Aaron Gordon and Jamal Murray.
What all you basketball (or physics) aficionados may notice about the sentence above is that it is physically impossible for Butler to guard both Gordon and Murray at the same time, which creates a massive problem for the Heat.
Not to mention when there are cross-matchups in transition, Butler is also the best option to battle Jokic on the elbow if Adebayo gets stuck on someone else.
Again, this means either Gordon or Murray isn’t guarded by one of the Heat’s best defenders, to say nothing of the fact that Miami has no one to match up with the unique skill and size of Michael Porter Jr.
Miami hid some of its defensive deficiencies in the East by playing zone. However, against a passing magician like Jokic and a shooter like Murray, this is nearly impossible in the Nuggets-Heat series.
In the end, it’s these defensive matchups that will ultimately doom the Heat and win the Nuggets their first-ever NBA title.