NBA Finals: Historic playoff offense from Nikola Jokic, Nuggets faces toughest test yet with disciplined Heat
Denver's offense has been unstoppable, but the Heat are a different beast
The Denver Nuggets finally have their NBA Finals opponent, setting the stage for a matchup between an unstoppable force and an immovable object.
Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have led the Nuggets offense to nearly 120 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs so far -- better than the Sacramento Kings' all-time best regular-season mark and currently the most efficient postseason offense of any team to make it past the conference semifinals.
If any opponent's finally going to stop them, however, it's the Miami Heat.
Behind the brilliance of Erik Spoelstra's game-planning and relentless, unyielding execution from his band of loyal soldiers, the Heat have stymied everyone from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Jalen Brunson to Jayson Tatum en route to their second Finals appearance in four years.
They play zone. They play man. They jump lanes and force turnovers. They take you out of your comfort zone. Kyle Lowry, Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent are body-sacrificing, ball-stripping pests. Sharpshooters Max Strus and Duncan Robinson are anything but doormats on the defensive end due to their size and length, combining for five blocks this postseason. Butler, when he's locked in, is as stout as any one-on-one defender on the planet. And of course there's the man in the middle, Bam Adebayo, who's finished in the top five in Defensive Player of the Year voting in each of the past four seasons.
"When I talk about our team's competitive will, we are following Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo," Spoelstra said after the Heat's devastating last-second Game 6 loss to the Boston Celtics. "Their will is incredible. If you're a basketball aficionado, the aesthetics might not always be perfect, but you have to admire the competitive spirit out of this group."
Adebayo will probably get first crack at Jokic, though history has taught us that Miami won't gave him the same look more than a handful of times in a row. If you were to design a player in a lab to guard Jokic, it might be Adebayo -- his size and strength can at least make things tough on Jokic's post-up attempts, while his quickness and agility allow him to switch onto guards and blow-up Denver's deadly dribble hand-off game.
Of course, we also thought these same things about Anthony Davis, and all Jokic did during the conference finals was average 28 points, 14.5 rebounds and 12 assists on 51/47/78 splits. The man cannot be stopped, but the Heat's task is to make things as difficult as possible for him -- easier said than done, especially coming off of a grueling seven-game series while the Nuggets will have gotten nine days of R&R after sweeping the Lakers.
"I give our guys credit. They have been locked in. The energy has been very good," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said on Monday. "We have an obligation to ourselves to make sure we're preparing and conditioning and doing everything with that pace and purpose that I mentioned."
While Jokic devastates defenses with his plodding, methodical demolition, Murray is a burst of buckshot, capable of doing immense damage from multiple angles in a fell swoop. He decimated the Lakers to the tune of 32.5 points, six rebounds and five assists per game on blistering 53/41/95 splits. Jokic may be the head of the snake, but Murray is the venom menacingly oozing from fangs that will fatally pierce your veins in a moment's notice.
So, while much of the attention -- rightfully so -- will be on how the Heat will stop Jokic, they'll need to be just as attuned to Murray if they're going to have a chance of stopping the Nuggets' bountiful offense in the NBA Finals.
"I would say even from the first round, his energy, he's been our best player since round one, and he's really stepping up," Jokic said of Murray. "Even if he doesn't make shots, this, that -- but his energy is always good. I think that's the best feeling for the guys around him. You know, yes, we know he can make shots, he can go for 50. But even when things doesn't go his way, he doesn't fall down. He is still playing. He's still fighting. I think that's the best thing about him right now."