In 2001, an undersized scorer by the name of Allen Iverson led a ragtag group of Philadelphia players including Eric Snow, Aaron McKie and Dikembe Mutombo to the NBA Finals so the 76ers could take their shot against Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers. Massive underdogs, the 76ers, the subject of a new documentary about their playoff run called Everything But the Chip, were able to shock the Lakers in Game 1 but ended up falling 4-1 to the defending NBA champions in the best-of-seven series.
Depending on what happens once the NBA Finals tip off tonight in Denver, a similar documentary could be coming about the Miami Heat, who were seeded No. 8 in the Eastern Conference to start the postseason after taking the last spot in the league’s postseason play-in tournament. Since then, the Heat knocked off the top-seeded Bucks 4-1 in Round 1 of the playoffs, eliminated the Knicks 4-2 in Round 2 and bounced the Celtics 4-3 in the East finals by easily winning a decisive Game 7 in Boston.
Now, having just played on Monday night, the Heat will open the NBA Finals on the road against a well-rested Nuggets team that hasn’t played since May 22 when they finished a four-game sweep of the Lakers with a 113-111 win. While there are reasons why it’s feasible the Heat can continue their magic in the NBA Finals against the Nuggets, who had the best record in the West at 53-29, there are certainly plenty of reasons to think the Nugs will win, which is why Denver (-400) is a heavy favorite to beat Miami (+310) in the series. Here are four reasons apiece why the Nuggets and Heat can win the NBA Finals.
Reason No. 1 for Miami: Jimmy Buckets
It’s an obvious statement, but the Heat would not be in this position were it not for Butler. Averaging nearly 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists to go along with two steals this postseason for the Heat, Butler is once again continuing his annual tradition of taking his game to another level during the playoffs. This will be Butler’s second chance at a championship after coming up short in the NBA Finals in the bubble in Florida in 2020. Butler is motivated and will be the reason why the Heat win the NBA Finals as massive underdogs — if they do.
Reason No. 1 for Denver: Nikola Jokić
Similar to the way Butler has been carrying the Heat, Jokić has led the way for the Nuggets this postseason. In addition to chipping in a steal and a block per game, Jokić has averaged a triple-double (29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists) in nearly 40 minutes of action. Jokic is the third player in league history to average a triple-double entering the Finals. In both previous instances, Magic Johnson (1982( and Wilt Chamberlain (1967) led their teams to wins.
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Reason No. 2 for Miami: Martin Momentum
The Heat come into tonight’s matchup, well, hot. A player who has averaged eight points per game during his four NBA seasons, Caleb Martin was the breakout star of the Eastern Conference finals and averaged 19.3 points on 60% shooting against the Celtics. He scored a playoff-career-high 26 points on Boston’s home floor in Game 7 and will look to keep it rolling against Denver. It’s worth noting Denver’s defense (ranked 15th in the league in defensive rating in the regular season) should be more porous than Boston’s (second).
Reason No. 2 for Denver: Jamal Murray
A true Robin to the Joker’s Batman, Murray has averaged 25.4 points, 5.9 assists and 4.9 rebounds in 48 games in the playoffs in his career. Murray, who went for 37 points in back-to-back games against the Lakers and dropped 40 on the Timberwolves in Round 1 of the playoffs, has only averaged 16.9 points per game in his career during the regular season. His scoring jump in the postseason is the largest difference by any player in NBA history with at least 20 playoff games played.
Reason No. 3 for Miami: Grit and Experience
Five of Miami’s playoff rotation players — Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, Kevin Love and Duncan Robinson -— have previously played in the NBA Finals. Their coach, Erik Spoelstra, is making his sixth appearance in the Finals as a head coach and was also an assistant on Pat Riley’s staff when the Heat won it all in ’05-’06. Another member of that team, Udonis Haslem, is still on Miami’s roster although he doesn’t play. What Haslem does do is provide grit and experience and give fellow undrafted Heat players like Martin, Gabe Vincent, Max Strus and Duncan Robinson confidence.
Reason No. 3 for Denver: Home-Court Advantage
A sparkling 34-7 at home during the regular season, the Nuggets will have home-court advantage over a Miami team that went just 17-24 on the road before the playoffs began. Though the Heat have been better on the road during the playoffs and have won six of 10 games away from Miami this postseason, the Nuggets are 8-0 at Ball Arena in the playoffs. The Nuggets are good — and playing 5,280 feet above sea level certainly doesn’t hurt. “All visitors to the Mile High City be warned,” Nuggets public address announcer Kyle Speller warns before games. “High levels of exertion at this altitude may cause hypoxia with symptoms of fatigue, difficulty breathing, rapid heart rate, headaches and confusion.”
Reason No. 4 for Miami: Confidence and Culture
Coached by Spoelstra since 2008, the Heat are one of the most stable franchises in the NBA and will be making their seventh Finals appearance since 2000, trailing only the Lakers, who lead the NBA with eight. The driving force behind that success has to be Riley, who has been with the team since 1995 and now serves as Miami’s team president. Riley hired Spoelstra in 1995 and the former video assistant has now guided as many teams to the NBA’s biggest stage as Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr. Only Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and Riley acquired more Finals experience as a head coach. Riley’s influence on Spoelstra is unmistakable, but that’s clearly not where it ends.
“I just know why Coach Pat and Coach Spo wanted me to be here, and that’s to compete at a high level and to win championships,” Butler said following Monday’s win. “I’m just confident. I know the work that we all put into it, so I know what we’re capable of. Nobody is satisfied. We haven’t done anything. We don’t play just to win the Eastern Conference. We play to win the whole thing.”
Reason No. 4 for Denver: Jeff Green
A 36-year-old who is on his 11th team since being drafted in 2007, Jeff Green has bounced around more than a well-worn Spalding. Though Green doesn’t play major minutes for the Nuggets, he does see some run and would deserve a championship ring if Denver can capture one. In a piece for The Players’ Tribune, Green explained how his daughters have viewed Denver’s playoff run and offered a little perspective.
“They’re happy for their dad. They don’t follow it down to the detail or anything, but they know that it means something for us to be playing still,” he writes. “They know that ‘Dad’s team beat LeBron’s team,’ and now he’s trying to win a championship. He’s never done it before — not in 16 years, not in 15 seasons, not over 1,000-plus games, not with 10 other teams. 4 more wins.”
We’ll see which team takes the first step to get their required quarter of victories when Game 1 tips off tonight.