Monday, October 2 2023

DENVER — Erik Spoelstra isn’t exactly Dr. Seuss, but he almost sounds like a passage from “Green Eggs and Ham” when referencing the start of the NBA Finals.

“If Denver wants to tip this thing off at the top of Everest, we’ll do that,” the longtime Heat coach said of the much-discussed altitude that has caused problems for Denver Nuggets opponents through the playoffs.

“They’ve also got to come back to Miami. If you want to make it about that, we’ll turn off the air conditioning and they’ve got to play in 90-degree humidity, sap the s*** out of their legs.”

No matter where, Spoelstra is ready for the Finals to begin. And no matter where, Nikola Jokić will be ready and waiting to continue his path of destruction that has claimed many stars.

The best of the rest of LeBron James. Kevin Durant. A healthy Anthony Davis. All are in Jokić’s wake to date, in the throes of what will be viewed as a classic postseason run when it’s over: 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists in 15 playoff games.

It’s possible given the end to the Heat-Celtics conference finals, Spoelstra has barely had a chance to consider the challenge Jokić presents. And through Spoelstra’s nearly two-decade run on the sidelines, he’s coached and stood against some unique players in high-stakes playoff games.


Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Giannis Antetokounmpo and now, Jokić. Duncan is the easy comp to Jokić, but it’s less about an on-court aesthetic and more on demeanor, deflecting attention and making teammates feel good.

On the floor, this is a different animal. Spoelstra is realistic, saying without prompting there’s not gonna be a Jokić stopper.

“He’s very unique,” Spolestra said during the Finals media day at Ball Arena on Wednesday afternoon. “He doesn’t really have any noticeable weaknesses in terms of his size, his skill set. He’s one of one in the myriad of ways that he can impact the game and impact winning.”

How the Miami Heat slow down Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić will be key to their shot at the NBA championship. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)How the Miami Heat slow down Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić will be key to their shot at the NBA championship. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
How the Miami Heat slow down Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić will be key to their shot at the NBA championship. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

There’s a healthy respect Spoelstra has for the Nuggets, dating back to the Orlando bubble when both coaching staffs found themselves in the same fishing holes on the Disney campus — as if there were many other places to hang out during that time.


“When we saw them in the bubble, we thought, all right, this team is going to be doing basically what they’re doing this year, then up until now,” Spoelstra said. “We thought this would be a run for a long time. If [Jamal] Murray didn’t get hurt, they probably would have had a couple of Finals berths. That’s how great of a duo they are and a system Mike [Malone] and his staff have built that really fits.”

The Nuggets may be here a couple years behind their own plan, or behind what their talent dictates they should’ve arrived to this point, but this run has shown the seriousness no other team has matched.

The Heat happen to be the ones standing in front of them — or more germane to the discussion, one Bam Adebayo is standing in front of Jokić.

Considering the height and weight difference between the two, Jokić might eclipse Adebayo. There are at least two inches and 30 pounds, plus the type of 30 pounds Jokić will be throwing around.

Adebayo is one of the league’s most versatile defenders and best defenders at all points of the floor. But Jokić made quick work of Davis in the conference finals when Davis had been a bully for the first two rounds, playing as healthy and impactful as he had in years.


At times, he treated Davis as if he wasn’t there, knocking him off his spot and bulldozing his way to the rim, particularly on the go-ahead basket in the clinching Game 4 of the West finals. That’s what Spoelstra and Adebayo are up against — along with the Heat likely having to dust off Cody Zeller and Kevin Love, who were played off the floor in the Celtics series.

“Guarding him as a team with all five guys,” Heat forward Jimmy Butler said. “He does everything so well, and we’re going to have to be in the gaps, we’re going to have to gang rebound. We can’t have defensive lapses. We’re just going to have to get after it. I think at the end of the day, he’s a major key, as DJ Khaled would say, and we’re going to have to lock in.”

It may have to be a thing where the Heat let Jokić feast on whomever’s in front of him without double-teaming, and focus on closing out on the shooters — a cat-and-mouse game Spoelstra is more than happy to play.

“I feel like this is one of those series where he becomes very dangerous when you let his teammates get involved, and he can make those incredible passes and end up with 12 assists,” Adebayo said. “Make him take tough shots, force him into tough shots, and live with the result. That’s the biggest thing for me.”


That could mean eating 40, 50 points in a night from Jokić and having to stay out of foul trouble in the process. Adebayo struggled offensively against the handsy Celtics, so he’ll have to shore that up to at least give Jokić something to think about.

“Does it end in a win?” Adebayo replied when asked about having to absorb such a night from Jokić. “If it ends in a win, it doesn’t matter. You can talk about stats, you can talk about this guy did that, did this and that. But you know at the end of the day, they’re going to remember the people who won.”

Jokić is the reason Miami is a huge underdog in this series, just the way the Heat like it. And Miami has stolen the series opener on the road in all three playoff series to date — Milwaukee, New York and Boston.

“I think it’s not Bam against me or whatever, whoever. It’s Denver against Miami,” Jokić said. “We like to play team basketball. It’s not going to be me against him or anybody against anybody. I think that’s why it’s going to be interesting.”

Actually it’ll probably be Jokić against everybody.

Source: Yahoo Sports


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