The 2023 Eastern Conference Finals series between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics will forever be remembered as one of the most memorable playoff battles in NBA history. It’s not always that a No. 8 seed manages to reach the conference finals, let alone go up 3-0.
The Celtics did not go away without a fight, pushing the series to the distance and making it look as though history was about to unfold. Instead, the series concluded in an anti-climactic annihilation of Boston’s hopes and dreams by Caleb Martin in Game 7 at TD Garden. Overall, you can’t say that that series did not entertain the hell out of NBA fans. And that’s also where the fun for the Heat likely ended because now the Denver Nuggets are in front of Miami.
Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has tried to endorse the Heat ahead of the Finals as Denver’s biggest test because there’s no way that he’ll go out there thumping his chest in front of reports and declaring that the Heat are toast. Malone respects Miami, as everyone should after watching them grab the collars of the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, and Boston before throwing those teams out the window, but he must also know that the only way the Nuggets would lose in the Finals is if Denver gets in the way of itself.
It all starts and ends with Nikola Jokic.
Jokic isn’t Shaq, but he has that “just give him the ball and get out of the way” aura of invincibility on the court. Whereas Shaq would overpower his defenders and treat them like wet cardboard at the post, Jokic frustrates opponents with how he gets buckets so easily even when taking shots from weird angles.
That’s before we even talk about his passing ability. He is always a step or two ahead of the opposing defense, consistently finding a crack to exploit before it even manifests itself. Bam Adebayo is a very capable defender, but he is bound to get chicken barbecued for an entire series by Jokic. Surrounded by shooters Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and a Swiss Knife like Bruce Brown, Jokic can get the space and angles he needs to wreak havoc. Speaking of that lineup, it has the best offensive rating (131.2) among four-man Denver combos in the playoffs with at least 50 minutes played together.
Denver’s offense is posting a 119.7 offensive rating, a 55.9 effective field goal percentage, and a 59.5 true shooting percentage. The Los Angeles Lakers, who many thought would present a semblance of an answer to Jokic and the Nuggets, ended up getting kicked in the face in four games of nothing but torture at the hands of the eventual West champions.
Miracles happen. The glass slippers still fit Jimmy Butler and his team. But the NBA Finals is where the midnight clock ticks.