The NBA Finals tip off Thursday with a first-time participant taking on a franchise very accustomed to the closing round. So what can we expect?
The No. 1 seed Denver Nuggets are making their first Finals appearance, having joined the NBA in 1976. The Miami Heat are making a league-best seventh Finals appearance since 2006, winning championships in 2006, 2012 and 2013. They are just the second 8-seed to reach the NBA Finals, joining the 1998-99 New York Knicks.
While Finals experience is one thing, rest may be another key factor. When the teams take the floor for Thursday’s Game 1 (8:30 p.m. ET), the Nuggets will have not played in 10 days. The Heat, meanwhile, traveled directly from Boston to the Rocky Mountains after winning Game 7 on Monday.
But there’s plenty to watch heading into this fascinating series. Here are key head-to-head matchups and storylines, as well as a prediction for this year’s NBA Finals. And for more, make sure to check out our team guides to the Nuggets and Heat.
The whole idea that some are just learning about Jokic is wild, because saying that about a two-time NBA MVP is a bit ridiculous. That being said, for the 28-year-old superstar who’s in his eighth season, the Finals give Jokic the chance to silence anyone who argues that he hasn’t won anything yet. It would cement his status as the best player in the league at this moment. Disagree?
Jokic is the only player in these NBA playoffs to rank in the top five in scoring (29.9 points per game), rebounding (13.3) and assists (10.3). His level of dominance has been unstoppable to this point, leading the Nuggets to a 12-3 record in the postseason.
Miami needs the 25-year-old Adebayo to play a huge role in this series and take ownership of what’s happening in the frontcourt. When he’s aggressive offensively and making his opposing matchups work hard on the glass, it’s proved to be a successful formula for Miami. When Adebayo records over eight rebounds this postseason, Miami has an 8-1 record. The other big department that he can help the Heat in is ball movement when there’s help on the interior. In Game 7 on Monday, he went for seven assists alongside his 12-and-10 performance. He has eight games of five assists or more in these playoffs.
That said, Adebayo hasn’t seen anything like Jokic, who rides into the Finals off a 30-14-13 performance — in 45 minutes! If the Heat center gets in foul trouble, this series is going to go quickly.
3. Erik Spoelstra vs. Mike Malone
No offense intended, but Spoelstra would have the advantage over any coach in the league right now. It’s not to put down Malone, who’s done a really nice job with this Nuggets team. The fact is, the Nuggets head coach had won four playoff series in his entire coaching career before this season.
Spoelstra has reached his sixth NBA Finals since 2010. The job he’s done with this team and the adjustments he’s made to get the most out of his core have been exceptional. The way he runs his team and the messages that he preaches in the locker room carry the feeling of a college program. The culture in Miami is real.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.