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A Timely And Data-Loaded 2023 NBA Finals Preview, For Basketball Idiots

An old black-and-white photo of a game between the Celtics and Royals
Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Hello there, casual televised basketball enjoyer! It has just now come to my attention that there will, in fact, be an "NBA Finals" this year, and that in fact it will "tip off" this very evening, and that my editor has been expecting me to "write" a "preview" of it, for the "website" where I "work." Well that is all news to me, pal. If that even is your real name.

Who are these basketball contestants? Where are they from, and are they scary? Are any of them in fact the famous "Air" Jordan? Without answers to these and other penetrating questions, you, the chill normal person who likes to watch the game with some others, cannot possibly hope to enjoy the activity, nor indeed to avoid catastrophic embarrassment and humiliation and possible murder from blurting out "They really should put the famous 'Air' Jordan in the game right now!" to a crowd of horrified now-former friends. When you think of it in those terms, I'm actually saving your life with this blog. That is the highest calling of any piece of basketball writing.

Below you will find literally all anyone could ever hope to know about the Finals teams, about their journey to these Finals, and indeed about all the individual players and coaches on each team and the history of sports. If you start now, I have faith that you can have it all memorized by the time the game starts. In any case it's out of my hands now.

Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic celebrates the Western Conference title with a teammate
Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

Hm. Seems that you have gravely misspelled "Golden State Warriors."

Thank you for your concern, but I have never gravely misspelled antyhnig! The Golden State Warriors will not be representing the Western Conference in the 2023 NBA Finals. Nor will the Los Angeles Lakers, before you ask! It's the Denver Nuggets, making their first Finals appearance ever. I am at least 75-percent sure of this.

Well then how the hell did they get here?

The short and incredibly unhelpful answer is, they won three playoff series. That's how any team makes it to the Finals!

No but seriously: The Nuggets were the West's clear best team this season; last year's injury-dented first-round exit notwithstanding, they've been on a legible growth curve for five years; and this was simply the next step for them. In two-time MVP center Nikola Jokic the Nuggets feature very probably the sport's current best player, a gigantic one-of-a-kind, one-man engine of fluidly excellent basketball who maximizes the abilities of everybody around him. Philadelphia's Joel Embiid (deservedly!) ended Jokic's two-season streak of MVP awards this year, but in several respects this has been the big Serb's best campaign, as he reached Ludicrous level as both a scorer and passer.

Some of this shit is just crazy, man:

Around Jokic, Denver's stocked a multifarious and reasonably deep crew of useful guys—Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Jeff Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and so on—decisive shooter and finisher types who defend and run around a lot. That last bit is not some kind of insult. Running around a lot is a uniquely valuable skill in the orbit of Jokic, both because of his unparalleled ability to get a pass to any teammate in any spot at any time from any angle, and also because, for his part, he does not run around much at all—save for moments when he decides to push the ball in transition, at which point he gets down the floor like a great dane who just saw a tennis ball. So it is very good, particularly at the defensive end, for him to have guys around him who do a lot of running.

The other big part of all this success for Denver has been the return to steady health of Jamal Murray, once again the absolute perfect guard to pair with Jokic: A fearless shooter and scorer who does his best work curling around Jokic, taking a handoff, and looking for his shot. Those who recall the abominable 2020 Orlando COVID-bubble playoffs will remember Murray's near-frightening scoring streaks against the Utah Jazz, when he'd go whole quarters at a time seeming for all the world as though he'd transfigured into some higher order of being. OK so maybe he hasn't quite hit that level this postseason. That's fine! Humans aren't supposed to hit that level ever! But it's no coincidence that the Nuggets are here, for the first time ever, in Murray's first season back from the devastating knee injuries that stole a season and a half from him, just as it's no coincidence that the Nuggets crapped out in the first round without him in the spring of 2022.

The Nuggets have played lovely and thrilling basketball for years, now. What's been slightly different in these playoffs is that, more than ever before, they can also just beat the living shit out of opponents in uglier ways. Jokic went Adult Uncle Against Grade-Schooler Nephews Mode for stretches of each of Denver's three series wins leading to the Finals, casually smashing even huge defenders like Karl-Anthony Towns, Deandre Ayton, and Anthony Davis out of the way to haul down offensive rebounds and score putbacks. This is especially notable because he will be, by some distance, the largest guy on the floor in the Finals.

What do the Nuggets need to do to win?

Regardless of what any betting line might say (I wouldn't know in any case), the Nuggets are huge favorites in this series. They'll have had a whopping 11 days of rest, recovery, game-planning, and practice before Game 1 tips off, uh, alarmingly soon. They'll have home-court advantage, against a Miami Heat team that just ground itself to burger meat to escape a seven-game series against the Boston Celtics—who, you may recall, in turn put up a pretty feeble fight in last year's Finals, in no small part because they'd worn themselves out in long series to get there.

The media coverage of the run-up to this series has been full of dumb, annoying stats like NBA teams are 47-1 (or whatever) when they have more than 10 days of rest and home-court advantage coming into a series. This type of stat is annoying because media types predictably offer it to demonstrate the value of rest and home-court advantage, when actually all it does is reiterate the obvious truth that, pretty much by definition, the team that both 1) finished with a better record in the regular season, thus earning home-court advantage, and also 2) mopped up its three playoff series much more quickly than its Finals opponent ... is the better team. It's like reading the final score of a game and arriving at the powerful deduction that NBA teams that score more points than their opponents tend to win.

I'm sorry. That was a cranky tangent. Anyway, my point here is that the Nuggets don't really need to do anything in particular other than avoid catastrophic injuries and play to their level in this series, and the likely outcome is that they will win it. No team is better than these Miami Heat at profitably mucking up a game or series, knocking it out of any legible rhythm, and reducing the outcome to a small number of high-leverage plays in its latest and most exhausted moments. The task for the Nuggets, then, is, uh ... don't let 'em. This is the deep analytical shit you came here for.

Should I root for the Nuggets?

With apologies to my Heat Sicko colleagues Luis and Diana, I kind of think you should! The core proposition of Nuggets basketball is that wildly creative, inventive passing, coupled with near-constant player movement—fluid and lovely basketball, that is to say (plus, ugh, I guess some amount of defense)—can win the day. The core proposition of Miami Heat basketball, particularly toward the wrung-out back end of the playoffs, is that grueling physical and mental endurance can become the winner's decisive advantage if the game is made ugly and tight enough. That's not, like, evil or anything. It's just also not fun or exciting. And frankly, it's better to be happy when Jokic throws a cool-as-hell pass than to be like, "Shit, that's bad for my rooting interest, the team attempting to thwart all of the cool creative shit." If you have a choice in the matter, choose to feel good about what's cool and fun! That is just a good general life lesson, from me to you.

Miami Heat
Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat pump up the home crowd
Megan Briggs/Getty Images

You already said a bunch of rude stuff about the Heat in this blog.

Listen, from the bottom of my heart: I like the Miami Heat. What's more, I admire them. No NBA organization, at present, better exemplifies what I consider the ideal for a professional sports franchise in these dang United States, which is to commit itself, each and every season, to the effort to be better than it was the season before. Head coach Erik Spoelstra has ushered the Heat through, like, 10 distinct incarnations in the 15 years he's been running the show, as the consistent effort to seek each next season's championship has at times forced the organization to be creative in team assembly, and has (I think!) pretty firmly established himself as one of the greatest coaches in league history. As ever, the team on the court is smart, versatile, unselfish, and adaptable; their style is "doing whatever will cause us to win this game." It's a first-class operation they got over there, I tells ya!

The Heat were the East's eighth seed in these playoffs, though that was a bit misleading from the jump, and not only because the play-in tournament is stupid and delegitimizing. It's not that the Heat, like, strategically lost games on purpose or whatever, or that the team's regular-season record reflects anomalous hardship to any greater degree than any other's, so much as the Heat are a team built to do its best work in the playoff format, where tactical flexibility, focus, attention to detail, and sheer ornery stamina grow in importance across up to seven punishing games. However much fumbling away a 3-0 lead in the conference finals might say about this team's weaknesses, going into Boston and winning Game 7 in a rout reveals (or confirms) at least as much about their strengths, and their fitness for the pressure of this shit. I hate crediting crusty old shithead clichés, but it's really true: Playoff basketball is different. And here the Heat are, in the Finals.

Who are their guys?

Once again, if you recall those gut-churning 2020 playoffs, you'll recognize Miami's main guys this time around: wing Jimmy Butler, as Heaty a Heat as ever Heated, so Heatful that it seems impossible he ever played for anybody else, and center Bam Adebayo (also extremely Heatish). Both of them, if the preceding nigh-gibberish sentence didn't make this clear, exemplify the Heat's whole deal: They're smart, versatile, unhealthily competitive dudes whose contributions aren't pegged to any one or two or three areas, who can take various shapes across a single game, who are perfectly happy to squeeze the life out of a game or series and win ugly—and who can look an awful lot like bozos when they're not doing that.

The Heat grew a new Main Guy in the Boston series: Caleb Martin, a sweet-shooting wing type whom, frankly, I would have expected Jayson Tatum to eat alive, had I even thought much about him at all prior to the conference finals. He was deadly against the Celtics. I have no idea what to expect from him against Denver. None at all! (This is because of profound, bottomless expertise, not ignorance. On my part.)

Oh hey, there's also Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Kyle Lowry, and Duncan Robinson. They will shoot lots of threes. There may also be Tyler Herro at some point; he has been injured for a while, but might play in this series. It's getting very late right now.

What do the Heat need to do to win?

I think I've given this away a solid handful of times by now, but: The Heat need to muck things up. A tight, low-scoring, unlovely game with a smaller number of possessions plays to Miami's greatest strength, that ability to figure out solutions mid-game, to grab a decisive portion of the marginal stuff at the end of the game—to win without necessarily having played better, or even all that well.

That is all rather vague. I mean in nearer-to-earth basketball terms, the Heat will be challenged to box Nikola Jokic out from grabbing a bazillion offensive rebounds, a thing he's great at; he's near to his deadliest in the disorganized chop immediately following one of these. They'll be taking on that challenge at a big size disadvantage; relatedly, if they have to run a lot of double-teams at Jokic because he is painting the hardwood with individual defenders, then he will kill them with passes to cutters and open shooters. It's a real pickle!

The solution might come at the other end of the floor. Even now, at the surreal level of excellence he has sustained across the past three seasons, Jokic can still be prone to giving away stupid personal fouls in lieu of defending, particularly when he's frustrated. I trust the Heat to figure out some way of attacking him with this in mind. The Heat might also find a foothold by cycling through screens until they can get Jamal Murray matched up on Jimmy Butler, who loves nothing more than to single out an under-equipped defender, beat them to death through methodical isolation play, and talk so much shit that said defender begins to question if he should even continue playing basketball. Murray, for all his talent, can go through long stretches of discombobulation in playoff games, and Butler will be eager to see that happen. That is not going to be great-looking basketball; a game that features 10,000 free throws is one that suits these Heat just fine.

Should I root for the Heat?

We already covered this! Do you even see the clock right now??

Ugh. Here are some reasons to root for the Heat. Them winning the Finals as an eighth seed would be a historic thing to have witnessed. Them winning the Finals would be a spectacular validation of their admirable organizational philosophy (the commitment to year-over-year competitiveness from several paragraphs ago), and I suppose there's at least some faint hope that other teams might then attempt to ape it, which would be good for fans and for players and for the sport. Jimmy Butler leading the Heat to a championship would be an amazing opportunity to point and laugh all over again at the Philadelphia 76ers organization, which showed him the door in service to its preference for Ben Simmons, who seems likelier to quit basketball any day now than ever to win a championship as one of a team's two or three best players.

Those are fine reasons! If you find them persuasive, Godspeed to you in your Miami Heat enthusiasms!

Whomst shall hoist whatever the NBA championship trophy is called?

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