Why the Nuggets Will Win the NBA Finals & How to Bet it
Getty Images/ Matt Roembke of Action Network. Pictured: Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)
Denver is not satisfied.
I prodded the Nuggets all year about their championship dreams. I asked in December when they started to play well. I asked in January when they became one of the best teams in the league. I asked after the All-Star break and before the playoffs.
They demurred every time. They spoke about it in preseason, and then the rest of the way they just focused on the next game. They had the same mantras — we need to keep getting better, etc.
And then they got to the playoffs, and it became about that number: 16 wins.
When they beat the Suns — the Western Conference favorite who had swept them two years ago — you couldn't have blamed them for some cathartic release for enjoying that moment.
Instead, it was all business. "Eight more, (the) job's only halfway done."
That's it. That was the only message.
They beat the Lakers in a playoff series for the first time in franchise history. They swept a team for the first time in franchise history. They won the West for the first time in franchise history. They reached the Finals for the first time in franchise history.
"Four more," they said.
They celebrated on the plane, as professional athletes do. They came home and rested, and then they got back to work while the Heat and Celtics dragged each other to seven brutal games.
All of the tactical advantages, superstar talent and superior coaching, none of it matters if your mindset isn't right. If you're that young team who's just happy to be there, awed by the stage, you won't make it when a team comes for your throat.
If you're that veteran team too comfortable on your haunches, you won't last against the desperate franchise across from you.
But Denver's ready. That's not what the Nuggets said, it's what they've shown us. They're in the Finals, not by unbelievable upsets and wild performances, but by handling their business vs. the Wolves, the Suns and the Lakers.
It took 80% shooting from Devin Booker in two games for the Suns to barely get two games against them.
The Nuggets aren't just happy to be here. They're not overconfident or worn out. They're unsatisfied.
Four more wins.
Can they get them?
I'm not going to lie to you; this matchup is a nightmare for the Heat. Bam Adebayo is one of the best defenders in the NBA because of his versatility in stopping any sort of opponent. But Nikola Jokic is the rare NBA big man who can move through him like water, shoot over him and punish any help the Heat try to give Bam.
In the past three seasons, here are Jokic's performances when matched up vs. Adebayo, via NBA.com's admittedly wonky matchup data:
- 6-of-13 for 15 points and seven assists in 13 minutes
- 8-of-12 for 17 points and 10 assists in 16 minutes
- 9-of-15 for 20 points and eight assists in 15 minutes
That would be 52 points and 25 assists in 44 minutes of matchup time.
Other teams have tried putting a smaller defender — a power forward — on Jokic while having the center act as weak-side help. The Nuggets solved this against the Lakers and Wolves.
But the Heat don't even really have this ability. Kevin Love will struggle too much with Jokic as the pick-and-roll ball handler and his cutting off screens. Haywood Highsmith will struggle to contest Jokic's high release point, as will Caleb Martin.
Miami might go to Cody Zeller in a two-big lineup, but that messes with the bench rotation, and it will scuttle the offense without dragging Denver far enough down.
Jokic, if healthy and not in foul trouble, will eat in this matchup over and over.
Typically, the way a great defense throws off a great offense is through zone. Miami used it sparingly, but to lethal effect vs. the Celtics. Boston fell apart like it does every year against it.
Denver, on the other hand, is the No.1 team against zone in the regular season and playoffs. The Nuggets rip it to shreds, in part because the best counter to a zone is a big man flashing middle who can pass.
Say hi to the two-time MVP.
Miami's offense has carried it over its two serious threats in the playoffs, Milwaukee and Boston. The Heat shot 45% from 3 vs. the Bucks and 43% vs. the Celtics.
Denver's defense isn't as good as either. The Nuggets give up more 3s and are softer at the rim, but they do have great length and have been disciplined in who they give shots to throughout the playoffs.
Miami will need to continue — not just its great shooting, but its all-time shooting numbers — to keep up offensively. Denver has the No. 1 half-court offense in the playoffs at 105.6 per 100 plays, via Cleaning The Glass. Miami is No.7 at 99.9, a full six points per 100 plays worse. That's a huge gap.
If the Heat can't keep shooting the lights out, their best offensive effort — even with a great defensive performance — won't be enough to get them within range.
The Heat are also at a major size disadvantage beyond Jokic. Michael Porter Jr. is a great rebounder and is 6-foot-10 with a 40% shooting ability from 3. Aaron Gordon is 6-foot-8 and is a beast in terms of strength. Even Jeff Green and Christian Braun have size advantages.
Miami has been decent on the glass, seventh in defensive rebound percentage in the playoffs. Denver has faced Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, LeBron James and Anthony Davis and is the third-best rebounding team in the playoffs.
Miami is great at drawing fouls. Denver has a higher free-throw rate in the playoffs.
Miami is great at playing passing lanes and forcing turnovers. Denver has the lowest turnover rate in the playoffs.
There's always a question of, "how will the Nuggets defend the pick-and-roll with Jokic?!," as if they've never seen one before.
But after Anthony Edwards, Booker, KD and LeBron failed to take advantage of Denver's defense, the answers are pretty clear.
Denver will put two on the ball when it challenges Jokic to get the ball out of his hands. That means Adebayo will have open opportunities to score or pass. But unfortunately, Adebayo continues to be indecisive offensively — to the point where it's too often to be relied on.
Miami may try and flip this by going to Jimmy Butler as the screener — with Adebayo as the ball handler — but Denver will play drop coverage in those situations, daring Adebayo to shoot. And if Butler tries to drag Jokic into an ISO off it, Denver will scram it.
It's not that Miami is hopeless; it'll score vs. Denver with its toughness, execution and shooting.
But will it be enough to keep it within range?
Miami has been a dominant clutch team behind Jimmy Butler's heroics. Guess who the No. 2 fourth-quarter team has been in the playoffs? The Denver Nuggets.
Miami is 6-3 in clutch-time games (inside five points in the final five minutes). Denver is 7-3. So, even if Miami is better in clutch time, Denver is still good enough to hang on if it has the lead.
The one thing that could equalize things for Miami is turnovers. Denver faced a Timberwolves team that was good at forcing turnovers — but was without Jaden McDaniels, and by the end of the series, Kyle Anderson. They were also just outmatched.
The Suns don't force many turnovers, and the Lakers were middle of the pack.
The Heat are elite at it.
Miami has to make Denver make mistakes and then turn those mistakes into points. That's how you can even what's a considerable margin for error for Denver.
How to Bet the Nuggets in the NBA Finals
The market was never going to give us a good price on Denver like it did vs. the Suns and the Lakers. The Western Conference Finals were the last chance to get in under the radar.
Once the Nuggets swept the most public team imaginable, the secret was out, especially vs. an eighth seed, even if that eighth seed knocked off a one-seed and a two-seed on their way here.
But Nuggets -1.5 is still the best value on the board. This opened -134 at DraftKings Monday night, and I bet it immediately, but I still think it's worth the extra 30 cents. I'm looking for the right moment to bet Nuggets -2.5, as I think this series finishes in five.
Miami has beaten two teams that would've been favored vs. Denver in the Finals. The Heat have been counted out multiple times.
Maybe Martin keeps playing like Tracy McGrady and shooting like Klay Thompson. Maybe Gabe Vincent keeps playing Steph Curry. Maybe the Nuggets fall apart under the lights and it turns out the West was never any good.
But the matchup, the dynamics, the rest advantage, the trends and the power ratings all point in one direction.
If you want to back the Heat because past performance is the greatest predictor of future results, I can't blame you. But my best analysis says that Denver is ready. The matchup is prime, and in 5-6 games, the Denver Nuggets will be NBA champions.