The Heat vs. the Nuggets. Jimmy Butler vs. Nikola Jokić. Not the Finals we expected, but it could be an entertaining one.
For NBC Sports Bet The Edge, four analysts from the NBC Sports family came together to break down the unexpected NBA Finals between the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat. You can read it here, watch it above, or check out the podcast form if that is best for you.
The four are Kurt Helin, lead NBA writer for NBC Sports; Jay Croucher, the lead betting analyst for NBC Sports; Vaughn Dalzell a sports betting analyst for NBC Sports; and Drew Dinsick an NFL, NBA, Tennis Handicapper with NBC Sports.
Let’s jump into the discussion.
Jay Croucher: Somber tone today as we lament the Boston Celtics’ +950 ticket when they were down 3-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals going down in flames. Undone by Jason Tatum’s ankle, by Joe Mazzulla’s obsession with playing drop coverage against Duncan Robinson — why’d you do it Joe? Why’d you do it? — and undone by the Miami Heat most of all. And today we’re going to talk about the finals matchup, Heat vs, Nuggets, just as everyone predicted before the playoffs started.
Kurt, we’ll start with you, I just want your theory behind the Miami Heat because this is the most inexplicable Finals appearance that I can recall. Probably I wasn’t paying as close of attention to basketball in 1999 when the Knicks made their eight-seed charge, but what do you make of the Heat ultimately? Do you think that this is largely luck? Do you think that this was team was lurking all season and are actually in that same tier as the Bucks and Celtics who they’ve dispatched? Overall, just what do you make of this team?
Kurt Helin: I think they were better than we thought. I think, going into the season, I had them as a four or five seed, I thought that were maybe a tier below where Boston was, where I thought Milwaukee and Philadelphia were. But I thought they were better than they showed during the regular season, they just couldn’t hit a shot to save their lives was part of it.
But I think it speaks to relentlessness and, look, they’re committed to their system. They know who they are. They don’t vary from it. They keep attacking you regardless and they showed a mental toughness that certainly Boston hasn’t shown. But beyond that, no other team in the East seemed able to match that toughness. It is kind of shocking, I think I picked against them in every round, well, maybe not in the second round, I think I had them over the Knicks, but I’ve been surprised by this the whole way. It speaks to their culture.
Who of us had Caleb Martin for Eastern Conference MVP, because he came ‘this close.’
Jay Croucher: Yeah, it’s unreal, Caleb Martin substantially outplaying Jaylen Brown, who might be about to pick up a quarter of a billion dollars. A pretty key moment in the series. Vaughn. What do you make of the Heat? I think you believed in the Heat a bit more than at least I did coming into this series.
Vaughn Dalzell: Well, I liked the Heat Game 1. I bet the Celtics Game 2 and 3, went back on the Heat in Game 4 and lost that, then watched you guys talk about the Celtics’ comeback and I hated on it.
Yeah, the Heat end up coming through for me, I guess, but I was just really impressed with the 3-point shooting and the way they were able to spread teams out. I mean eight out of 10 rotational players in the postseason hit 35% or better from 3, This Miami Heat Team averaged the lowest amount of points per game in the NBA in the regular season, and they got it going offensively.
They really bought into Jimmy Butler, in my opinion, he’s the only guy on the team that averaged over 17 points per game. Seven different players average 10 points per game for the Heat or more. So just very well balanced. They didn’t even need Tyler Herro for this run, he’s targeting a Game 3 return, which is the first home game for Miami. So if he does come back for that, it certainly be exciting. But Vegas certainly thinks Denver is gonna be far too much for Miami.
Jay Croucher: What about you, Drew?
Drew Dinsick: Well, a couple of things. There’s definitely been playoffs a cycles, entire cycles in our lives, where it was as simple as the best player in the series, that team wins. And so far, Jim Butler has been the best player in all three of the Heat series and they’ve won all three of those series, so it shouldn’t really be shocking to us. On top of that, they have also kind of caught variance in the bottle in terms of getting to go against an injured Bucks team in round one, and then getting to go against the Celtics team in round three that hit the wrong side of variance in terms of shooting when it mattered most. I mean, the poor shooting that we saw from the Celtics, particularly, early and late in that series, those are like 10th percentile type of games for them over the balance of the season and they all happen to happen in the Eastern Conference Finals. Which is wild and tough to explain, and I don’t even really want to give the Heat a ton of credit for the way that they were defending the Celtics because they basically were giving the Celtics really high-quality looks. They just weren’t going in. They weren’t even coming close in Game 7.
So, I think they have done some things that are worth lauding, the development of Caleb Martin into a bonafide No. 2, like at times, he looked like Kawhi Leonard out there and I was like, I could not believe what they were getting from him on both ends of the floor. And it does not look like a fluke, his true shooting was at 78.3, his eFG% was 72.7 in an entire series, and that’s against the Celtics, who have elite wing defense, that’s an amazing, amazing, accomplishment, and congratulations to The Heat for getting here.
But I don’t see any reason to run to the window to bet the Heat now. If you want to go with the best player in the series kind of argument, it’s clearly Nikola Jokic, who has been the best player in the playoffs so far, I think by a margin. For those reasons, and home court advantage, and just in general, the Heat, limping in a bit having had to go seven against the Celtics, I think is kind of influencing the market here, where we’ve seen since the open a pretty sincere appetite for Nuggets bets by a lot of the market makers.
Jay Croucher: Yeah, the Heat, I think they’re incredibly admirable and we have to be respectful that they’re pulling this off.
I’m still just gonna die on the hill, though, that they’re not very good. To me, they are a much mentally tougher, better-coached version of the Atlanta Hawks, who by the way, destroyed them in the play-in game. A slightly better version of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Toronto Raptors, I don’t think those teams have markedly less talent. But I think that how we’ve gotten here is Jimmy Butler, who is a legit +7 EPM [estimated plus/minus] superstar who ramps up in the playoffs. He had three out-of-body experiences: In Games 4 and 5 of the Bucks series, and then in the last six minutes of Game 2 against the Celtics, where he too smalled Grant Williams, Those three performances combined with the fact that they shot 45% from 3 against the Bucks, and then they shot almost 44% from 3 against the Celtics, while the Celtics shot 30% from 3 and that’s your series. It’s a really solid defensive team.
I think they’re gonna have trouble with Nikola Jokic just because Bam Adebayo is a smaller human being than typically plays center. But I think that their defense was excellent against the Bucks and the Celtics. Also the thing is, we’ve seen repeatedly that the Bucks and the Celtics, as good as they are, those offenses, when they come up against an elite defense, just struggle and can really get in the mud and the Heat preyed on that and they made their 3s and Butler was incredible. And here we are.
Weirdly, I think the series I take the most optimism for the Heat going forward in was the Knicks series because they didn’t shoot well against the Knicks, they couldn’t make a shot against the Knicks. And that Knicks team, while not to the level of Milwaukee or Boston clearly, was a solid 47-win team and the Heat, with Butler limping around not being able to make a shot, still handled them with relative ease, so can’t write them off. But still, it seems like the Nuggets are certainly justified favorites.
Want to take a look at some of these player prop markets in the Finals, points leader, rebounds leader, assists leader, you can bet on all of them. As you would imagine most of these markets are heavily skewed towards the two superstars in Nikola Jokic and Jimmy Butler, but Kurt, is there a player that you think is going to have a really good series in this matchup?
Kurt Helin: That’s a good question. There might be an instinct to go with Jamal Murray, but Miami doesn’t match up well with Nikola Jokic. I think their goal is ultimately to make him a scorer, which everybody tries to do, he just figures everybody out, but try to make him a scorer, not as much of a passer.
And I think what they’re gonna do as part of that is try to wear Jamal Murray down, they might pick him up full court, they are going to go at Murray. Jokic putting up a lot of points I expect, I’m not sure that this is gonna be a great Jamal Murray series, at least early. But they have such depth of shot creation and scoring that if you if you really do take away Murray, Michael Porter Jr. can have his games.
And I think that that’s where you might look, if I were betting on a guy to kind of have a really nice series, Michael Porter Jr. The Heat don’t don’t run anybody out over like 6’7″ right? Outside of Bam. I’ve just got a feeling it’s going to be one of those series where Michael Porter Jr. is going to have some games because, much like the last series, it doesn’t really matter to him, he’ll just shoot over whoever you put on him. If he’s rolling, you are not gonna be able to stop it.
Jay Croucher: Vaughn anyone that you like in the series in one of these markets that matches up well against the other team?
Vaughn Dalzell: Actually, you just mentioned one of them Kurt, Michael Porter Jr. Because, one of the prop markets that we might not be talking about in depth was the 3-point market, I definitely felt like MPJ and Caleb Martin were two clear guys to be taking a shot on there. MPJ is averaging about 8.3 3-point attempts per game. In that Lakers series, he had 20 in the last two games. Caleb Martin, we were talking him up and how he’s a solid No. 2, he made 22 3s versus Boston on 45 attempts, that’s 49% He’s probably the best value on the board for Heat player.
I think if you’re trying to take Jimmy Butler on total points, I think Jimmy would have to go Super Saiyan to win that over Nicola Jokic because, I know we talked about it briefly before, Nikola Jokic dominating Adebayo. Over the last six meetings, he’s averaged 46 points/rebounds/assists —25 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists — and in this playoffs in particular this guy has triple-doubled eight out of 15 times. I mean, you’re not even getting plus money on the triple-double anymore, he’s triple-doubled five of his last six.
So clearly Jokic should be leading all these stat categories. I wouldn’t take any other players. But if you’re talking about 3-point market, I think that’s where the value is, and I’d be looking at MPJ or Caleb Morton, he’s 13-1.
Jay Croucher: Anyone in these markets Drew you think is going to rise up.
Drew Dinsick: The market is telling you right now this is probably going to be a short series, with fewer games comes more variance. And MPJ at 40-1 is pretty insane.
We had two matchups between these two teams this regular season both were meaningful. One in December, one in February, you had pretty decent full strength from both squads in both of these matchups. Nikola Jokic’s offensive rating in these two games? A combined 159. Which is absolutely ridiculous. He wasn’t the primary scorer, he was mostly a facilitator in one of the games and it was pretty much a team effort in both of the Nuggets wins against the Heat this regular season. Both were competitive games.
So, I think the entirety of the Nuggets’ fortunes in this series run through Nikola Jokic’s ability to continue to operate an offense at a level we’ve never seen in the NBA before. And, for those reasons, any Nugget, being kind of the beneficiary of his gravity, I think you take a shot and hope in a short next four- or five-game series Michael Porter Jr. gets hot from 3 a couple of games and all of a sudden that 40-1 is live.
But make no mistake the most important player in the series by far for the Nuggets is Nicola Jokic. And I think, realistically if he has a game that’s not a triple-double you’ll be more surprised than anything else. I thought his defense took a step forward this playoffs from what we saw in the regular season. And I think in general his ability to dominate on the glass against the Lakers is something that you can take directly into this series because he has the same exact sort of size advantage over the Heat squad, even more so, than he had over a Laker squad that was really lacking the second big body out there. So yeah, I think you know Jokic is gonna get it done every which way possible.
Jay Croucher: What I’m most interested in is, the first Nuggets offensive possession, what are the Heat doing with Jokic and how are they going to guard that? Is it just going to be Bam one-on-one and just see how that goes? Is there going to be some zone elements? Are they going to put Kevin Love on Jokic and have Bam be in the help role that Anthony Davis was?
I think the Lakers were probably the best-equipped team in the league to defend Jokic and defended him about as well as you can, and the Nuggets had a 122 offensive rating for the series. So I think you just cannot defend him, and the Heat are gonna have to have to score heavily on the other end and then have some shooting variance go their way.
But Game 1 Kurt, where the Nuggets do have a massive rest advantage, maybe to the point where it could trend to a little bit of rust, what do you expect?
Kurt Helin: I do think that they’re going to be a little rusty from the start. And Michael Malone frankly, in his press conference this week, owned up to it. He’s just been like, you can’t recreate playoff basketball in practice. He was prepared for the first quarter, first half to be a little bit sloppy, I think. Or for his side not to be as sharp as they were going against that Laker defense.
But on the flip side — and I think this is the bigger issue — Miami, as resilient as they are, they put the tank pretty close to E to get here. They hop on that overly, weirdly discussed flight, and now you’ve got to play at altitude. Basically, you get a couple of days but you don’t have that much time to really adjust and then you run into the buzzsaw that is that is Denver. I just got a feeling this is one where Denver in the second half pulls away.
Jay Croucher: Drew, how are you betting the series?
Drew Dinsick: Gentlemen’s sweep. That’s my most likely outcome, by a lot, actually. Surprisingly. And realistically, you’re just asking the Nuggets to protect home court, and split Miami, and then we can call the series at home in Denver and drop the blue and gold confetti on the home fans it’ll be a pretty fun scene. And I honestly I would really just like to see Nikola Jokic to get a chip, to get a title and a Finals MVP because what we’ve seen from him now on a three-year arc has been amazing.
Jay Croucher: Yes, certainly does feel like a coronation for the Serbian King.