In an assessment relying on the eyeball test, statistics, or both, the conclusion would be that the Heat have no chance in this series. The Nuggets’ postseason net rating is more than double that of the Heat. During the regular season, the Nuggets won nine more games than their Finals opponent. While the Heat crawled into the playoffs after losing their first play-in game on their home floor, the Nuggets wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference so early that Nikola Jokić did not play in four of the final six games of the regular season.
By any analysis, this series should be considered a mismatch, except for the fact that somehow Heat have shoved their way into the NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed. They rolled through an Eastern Conference that was considered by those who cover the NBA to be the strongest of the two. A first since at least the turn of the millennium. The Heat’s unexpected run looked like it was on the verge of collapse in Game 1, but somehow they fought back and avoided being demolished on national broadcast television.
The Heat trailed by 24 points with 40 seconds remaining in the third quarter. By the 9:29 mark of the fourth, the Heat had cut the lead to 10 points after going on a 14-0 run. While the Heat did not win, playing Game 1 at altitude with only two days rest after playing all seven games of a conference-finals series, slicing that far into a 20-plus point lead is further proof of their resilience. After all of the upsets that the Heat have pulled off in 2023, even though this is the first Game 1 that they have lost this postseason, why shouldn’t they think of Thursday night as a positive?
Denver is healthy, unlike Milwaukee and Boston
The Nuggets are the only healthy team that the Heat have faced in a seven-game series this postseason besides the New York Knicks. Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks are a hardscrabble bunch, but also struggle mightily to convert from the field. The Milwaukee Bucks were playing with a hobbled Giannis Antetokounmpo, and against the Boston Celtics Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon were both dealing with upper body injuries that hampered their scoring ability. In Game 7, Jayson Tatum turned his ankle on the Celtics’ first possession.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope left the court at the end of the third quarter of Game 1, but was able to return in the fourth to finish the game. Not only are the Nuggets loaded with talent 1-6 in their lineup, but they are also largely healthy. They are certainly healthier than the Heat with Jimmy Butler perpetually dealing with knee problems, Tyler Herro having missed all but a few moments of the postseason with a broken hand, and the ankle that Gabe Vincent turned in Game 4 against the Celtics.
Herro might be ready for Game 2 on Sunday, but he hasn’t played in an NBA basketball game since April 16. The Heat might finally be outmanned. Even if they were completely healthy the Nuggets would still have an advantage when it comes to top-end talent. All that the Heat can rely on in this series is the guile and grit that has been a part of “Heat Culture” since Pat Riley arrived from New York.
The Heat played with that culture force in the fourth quarter of Game 1, and the result was a mildly competitive finish. However, can sheer will keep them alive in a series against a vastly superior team?
The Nuggets are clicking on all cylinders and after one game have no significant injuries to any player in their rotation. If the Nuggets’ health of their rotation players remains, only variance will be able to hinder their shooting percentages.
In no way will the Heat allow the 2023 NBA Finals to be an easy ride for the Nuggets, but if there was ever a postseason series in which their basketball talent discrepancy will be made plain, this is the one.