NBA Finals: Ranking the 17 Most Important Players in Heat vs. Nuggets
Via Eric Espada/Getty Images. Pictured: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets drives to the basket during the game against the Miami Heat on February 13, 2023 at Miami-Dade Arena in Miami, Florida.
The NBA Finals are here, and they are not what the books expected. The 1-seed Nuggets, who were not the favorites to win the Western Conference before the NBA Playoffs, take on the 8-seed Miami Heat, who look to continue their unprecedented run.
Can Miami knock off its second 1-seed and claim its first title in 10 years? Will Denver hoist the trophy for the first time in franchise history?
In the NBA, it's a players' league. So let's break down Heat-Nuggets by the most important players in the series.
Note: These aren't the best players, but the most important in terms of deciding the outcome of the series.
1. Nikola Jokic
If Nikola Jokic isn't good, the Nuggets will probably lose the Finals. If Nikola Jokic is good, the Nuggets will probably win the Finals. If Nikola Jokic is great, the Nuggets will almost definitely win the Finals.
But while that's nice and simple, we need to contextualize how he needs to be great.
Miami is going to try to make Jokic a scorer. To be honest, the Heat don't have the personnel to stop him. When matched against Bam Adebayo over the last three seasons, according to NBA.com's admittedly wonky matchup data, Nikola Jokic has averaged, and I'm not kidding, 50 points and 25 assists per 42 minutes of matchup time.
I'm not saying that's what Jokic is going to average in this series. I'm saying that if you go back and watch the film, you're going to see that Bam, who I believe is the NBA's best defensive player, has nothing for Jokic.
Adebayo's strength is his versatility, as he can switch against any player to disrupt any type of opponent.
But Jokic simply mauls him. Jokic just finished moving through Anthony Davis like water, and Adebayo is much smaller.
So Jokic is going to get what he wants, but the trick is what you allow him to have.
When Jokic scores 39 points or more in a playoff game, Denver is 1-3 in the playoffs in his career.
When Jokic has fewer than eight assists, the Nuggets are 16-20.
So the approach for Miami most likely will be, "Sure, try and make it tough on him, but don't let him get others involved."
Jokic has to apply so much pressure, score so easily and draw so many fouls that the Heat can't withstand the pain of the matchup. Jokic has to hurt the Heat so badly that they commit help and loosen their coverage. If he can't do that, or if they find ways to turn him over, then that tilts things dramatically in the Heat's favor.
But if he's the best player on the floor and impacts all phases of the game, then the Nuggets are going to win his 40-plus minutes per game by an average of eight or more. (He's averaging a +8.7 per game in the playoffs.)
That means the Heat have to win by nine or more on average in the other 6-8 minutes, and that's tough.
2. Jamal Murray
If Jokic is going to get the whole team involved, Murray has to be the biggest difference-maker.
Murray is going to be the pressure point. The Heat will try to wear him out with full-court pressure. They will bang him off screens, grab him on off-ball movement and body him as much as possible.
Murray has faced quality defensive coverage and cooked it throughout the playoffs, but this will be the toughest challenge. Nikola Jokic has called him their best player in the playoffs. He'll need to keep putting up dynamic scoring performances to frustrate and exasperate Miami.
The Heat will move Gabe Vincent consistently. Jimmy Butler will try to hunt Murray on switches and move him into post-ups, which is a tough thing for him to defend.
This is a toughness test for Murray, who is extremely tough. If he's up for the challenge, it moves more weight toward the Nuggets.
3. Caleb Martin
That's right! Caleb Martin — not Jimmy Butler!
It's not that Jimmy Butler isn't awesome. If we're ranking the best, not most important players in this series, Butler is easily second.
But this is the most important list.
Martin averaged 9.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game on 46-36-81 splits this season. In the playoffs, he is averaging 13.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game on 55-44-82 splits.
Against the Celtics, he averaged 19 and 6 on 60-49-88 ([).
The Celtics could never adequately game plan for that. They kept losing him and then being amazed when he crushed them again.
The Heat are extremely low on reliable offensive weapons with the ball. Butler's a monster. But Bam Adebayo disappears for stretches of multiple games at a time, Kyle Lowry is held together with duct tape, Tyler Herro will be returning from injury at some point in this series, and Gabe Vincent can do some stuff.
If Martin keeps up this offensive production and shooting efficiency, the Heat's chances of winning this series skyrocket. Miami is going to have to shoot the lights out to keep pace with a superior offensive team in Denver.
They've done that twice in these playoffs, and Martin was a huge part of it.
4. Bam Adebayo
Bam's probably going to have a rough series.
Maybe he doesn't! Maybe he finds something in him to disrupt and bother Jokic, dragging him into a less-than-his-standard series.
Maybe he finds his offensive stride, which has been woefully missing, and takes some of the sting off Jokic by punishing him on the other end, whether with mid-range jumpers or by getting to the rim for lobs in pick-and-roll.
But he's probably going to have a rough series.
Adebayo is undersized against Jokic. That usually doesn't matter, because most bigs in the NBA have the post moves of a mud puddle. However, it matters a great deal against Jokic when he's moving through you to score and when battling him on the offensive glass.
Adebayo's strength is his ability to switch onto perimeter players. He can do that against Jamal Murray. Great. That means that Jokic has a small on him, and not only is that an issue, but Denver has about 17 different mechanisms to punish it.
It's not as simple as Joker just backing down a smaller player on the switch. He'll put them in pick-and-rolls and hand-offs and re-screen and put them in all sorts of situations they are not physically capable or mentally ready to combat.
Bam's best bet of contributing in this series is going to be on offense. Joker will play at the level in pick-and-rolls. If Adebayo can both hit short jumpers/floaters and pass to the open man, that challenges the Nuggets defensively in a way no team has figured out in the playoffs.
5. Jimmy Butler
I can't put Butler any lower. The only reason he's this low is that I expect him to be great. This isn't a knock on him, it's that I will pencil in Butler for great games and clutch performances if the games are within range.
Butler will have bad games in this series. He is not an every-single-night kind of superstar. He has built a reputation for having great nights when his team needs to have them.
He will have monster games where the Nuggets throw the kitchen sink at him, and it doesn't matter. He's got a great ability to hit you with bursts. He lands a steal for a transition layup, a pull-up 3, a runner and-one and a post-up for free throws.
The question is if he can have enough wire-to-wire great games. Denver is way better in the fourth quarter than the other teams that the Heat have faced. Butler can't coast and then try and push it through in the fourth; the Nuggets' floor is too high, and their lead would be too great.
Jimmy Butler is going to need the best series of his career on a bad ankle, and then he's going to need help on top of it.
It's not about how much better the Nuggets are compared to opponents the Heat have already beaten — both Milwaukee and Boston would have been favored over Denver in the Finals.
It's that the matchup here is tougher; the Nuggets' offensive capacity is so much greater that the Heat will need all-time legendary stuff from their all-time legendary playoff performer.
6. Aaron Gordon
And guess who gets to guard Butler most of the time?
Aaron Gordon so far has had to guard Karl-Anthony Towns, who is way, way bigger than him; Kevin Durant, who is Kevin Durant; and LeBron James, who is LeBron freaking James.
Gordon has done the work. Those players have put up numbers, but he has made them work over the course of each series. Now he gets Jimmy Butler.
Have fun, Aaron!
In truth, Gordon will spend some time on him and some time on Adebayo or Caleb Martin. But he's a pretty good matchup for Butler, because he's big, physical and rangy.
Butler will score and draw fouls, but Gordon is as good of an option as you can find.
If not, then Butler has the capacity to be the best player in the series, and as stated above, that flips the script.
Miami is small. Caleb Martin is 6-foot-5. Kevin Love is limited in burst and quickness. The Heat will likely go back to Cody Zeller in the non-Jokic minutes when Gordon is at small-ball five, and honestly, they could win that matchup.
But Gordon will get chances for duck-ins and dunks that he did not have against the Lakers until Game 7.
Miami's zone will apply pressure on him to shoot, but Denver has enough counters to figure it out. Gordon will need to battle through one more series as the pin cushion for the opponent's best and most physical offensive force. If he can hold up, Denver gets closer to a title.
7. Michael Porter Jr.
MPJ is in a high-leverage spot on both ends of the floor. He's been way better defensively than folks outside of Denver expected.
Go check out the tweets and writer reactions from non-Denver writers. There are a lot of "You know, he wasn't bad!" comments.
The Nuggets switch all pick-and-rolls that don't involve Jokic. So if Butler wants to, he can target MPJ. MPJ's length and athleticism makes him a tough matchup, but if Butler puts him in the post and gets the pump-fake machine going, he can generate free throws.
Offensively, the Heat's size is going to be a problem against MPJ. The Lakers tried to go small to boost their offense, which meant 6-foot-5 Austin Reaves was guarding Porter, and MPJ made him look like a ball rack.
If Porter's jumper is falling, that's a pressure point that will crack Miami's defense, and if this becomes a track meet, it makes it that much more difficult for the Heat.
8. Gabe Vincent
Vincent has a number of tough assignments here that will swing things. He's got to knock down shots, first off. His 3-point performance vs. Boston in the first three games was integral to their 3-0 lead.
Second, he'll see a healthy dose of Jamal Murray when on defense while the Heat try and avoid having Jimmy Butler try to deal with the Murray-Jokic two-man game and wear out.
Vincent has to be able to generate offense off the dribble. It's vital to pressure the Nuggets by getting them moving and increasing the likelihood of either breakdowns or fouls.
Vincent doesn't have to have a great series for the Heat to win, but it would sure help.
9. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
KCP has had some quietly big games for Denver in this run. He scored 14 in Game 2 vs. the Suns on 5-of-6 shooting and 21 in the closeout Game 6. When he went wild in the first half, the game was basically over.
He also went for 21 in Game 1 vs. the Lakers and 17 in Game 3.
KCP will see time on Butler to spell Gordon, and dealing with Butler's physicality will be a challenge. If Tyler Herro returns this series, you can count on KCP being Denver's natural counter.
KCP isn't a found-money offense; he's a legit weapon. It's not just his shooting to space the floor and punish doubles on Jokic — it's his reads to know how to move along the floor to extenuate that spacing and his ability to navigate hand-offs for pull-up jumpers as well.
If KCP has an exceptionally strong series, it's going to make the Heat's shooting variance that much more important. If he has a bad series, it'll open the door for more ugly wins for Miami.
10. Kyle Lowry
Lowry is not what he used to be; his bench role is evidence of that. But he matters a great deal in this series.
The Nuggets' non-Jokic minutes are often perilous, if not a disaster. Their only saving grace is their defense can create stops and turnovers, which they then run off of. Lowry's ability to manage the offense into a low-turnover rate while providing quality defense is going to be big.
Lowry will try to draw charges on Jamal Murray when matched up, and if successful, that can throw off Denver's rotations.
11. Max Strus
Nothing too complex, here. Strus just needs to add shooting and his usual brand of competent defense.
He's going to be matched up with much bigger opponents, and don't be surprised if they take him to the glass.
Strus's shots always seem timely, but they've been outscored with him on the floor in the playoffs. Watch those minutes.
12. Bruce Brown
Brown has legitimately been the third-best Nugget in the playoffs, so him being this low is, if not insulting, a little insulting.
But so much of what Brown has done is what I've referred to as fullback dives. He simply gets the ball in the minutes without Jokic and pushes full speed to the opponent's rim. It's been a huge boost to Denver's offense in those dreadful bench minutes.
The Heat, however, are an elite transition team. Those opportunities are unlikely to be there as often.
Brown will battle Lowry and, later in the series, Herro. He'll also do his time on Jimmy Butler, likely being bodied and called for dubious fouls.
If Brown does get to the rim, or if he does disrupt Butler, the series may not be a wrap, but it swings wildly toward Denver. But while those things may not be likely, they're also not as vital as the things above toward a series win for the Nuggets.
13. Duncan Robinson
Shooting. Point blank. The Nuggets will hunt Robinson in a way that Boston and Miami could not, so don't expect his pleasant-surprise defensive minutes to continue.
But his shooting can keep the Heat in it. They're going to need Robinson. He's not so much important as "if Duncan Robinson has a bad shooting series, Miami's sunk from the start." They need to be able to just pencil in 2-5 3-pointers for Robinson per night.
14. Christian Braun
This is much more of a Braun series than the Western Conference Finals were against the Lakers. Braun is an excellent defensive option to throw at Butler just to wear him out. Butler will rack him up for fouls, but the rookie will body him and make him uncomfortable.
Braun will also help with creating turnovers for transition points, which Denver needs. However, he struggles finishing in transition and will likely rack up some charges.
15. Kevin Love
Does Love start again? I'm not trying to overlook Love. Maybe he starts and defends Jokic with Adebayo as the weakside defender like the Lakers tried.
But the Nuggets have a lot of ways to get Love moving where his defense falls apart. His rebounding will be important in whatever minutes he plays, and that may honestly be the biggest reason for him to play.
But Love will be a target for the Nuggets to get the Heat defense out of position, and once that happens, Joker feasts.
16. Cody Zeller
As mentioned above, Zeller, after being played off the floor by Boston, should be back in the rotation for this series.
The Nuggets' second unit doesn't feature a center. If Zeller can do the work he's done over the last few months with simple plays at the rim, the Heat can beat up the small-ball Nuggets bench lineup.
There's a game script where the Heat lose the starter minutes by a small margin but win the non-Jokic minutes handily, in part thanks to Zeller.
17. Jeff Green
Green has the worst plus-minus on the Nuggets, and it's usually his minutes that they struggle in. He hit a huge 3-pointer in Game 3 vs. the Lakers.
But this matchup isn't as favorable for him. The Heat have small-ball options that are faster and more athletic. Zeller can hurt him when he plays center. And the Heat zone, which will struggle when Jokic is on the floor, will dare him to let it fly as a poor shooter. This does not feel like a Jeff Green series.