NBA Power Rankings: Utah, Brooklyn 1-2 at the midseason mark


Consider this the mid-season NBA Power Rankings (we are taking next week off considering teams are not playing due to the All-Star break), and the Jazz have to be in the top slot. Is Brooklyn the team to beat in the East? They are winning now, their defense is improving, and after the break they get Kevin Durant back, so… yes. Probably.

Jazz small icon 1. Jazz (27-8, Last Week No. 2). Utah is back on top of the power rankings and has earned the right to be mentioned among the title contenders. However, the loss to Miami shows the challenge ahead of them in the second round of the playoffs and beyond: Late in the game, Jimmy Butler — a strong wing player who loves the midrange — got to his spots and hit shots. Utah’s defensive game plan is to force teams to take midrange jumpers, but what happens against a team that has players who thrive in that range? The Clippers and Lakers stars are very comfortable in the midrange.

Nets small icon 2. Nets (23-13, LW 1). James Harden is playing at an MVP level since coming over from Brooklyn, averaging 25.3 points, 11.3 assists, and 8.7 rebounds a game for the Nets (he’s not going to win the award after his ugly exit from Houston, voters will remember that). Brooklyn is rumored to be looking to pick up a center via trade or buyout, but small ball may be a better call — the Nets starting four with Jeff Green at the five (instead of DeAndre Jordan) is +26.3 per 100 this season. That lineup may be what Steve Nash leans on to close games.

Suns small icon 3. Suns (23-11 LW 3). Devin Booker and Chris Paul are both All-Stars this year (Booker named as Anthony Davis‘ replacement), and the last time the Suns had two All-Stars in the same season was 2010 (Nash and Stoudemire). CP3 and Booker have found a rhythm together in the last month; in their last 15 games together the Suns are +12 when those two share the court. Knocking off the Lakers on Tuesday night showed the nation how well all the role players fit around those two stars: Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, Deandre Ayton, and Jae Crowder all played key roles in the win.

Lakers small icon 4. Lakers (24-12, LW 5). The Lakers have gone 3-5 without Anthony Davis, and losses to quality West teams — Utah and Phoenix — show how much they miss him on both ends. LeBron James has had to carry a heavy load this season. It’s a smart move by him and the franchise to sit him out of the back-to-back against the Kings (his first missed game this season) — the Lakers need a fresh LeBron in the second half, and they need to get his minutes down and find him some rest before the playoffs. Nobody is worried about the Lakers in the regular season.

Bucks small icon 5. Bucks (21-14, LW 7). Jrue Holiday is back and that’s a huge boost for the Bucks — they gave up a lot of depth to land him and need him o the court this season (the Bucks are 6.5 points per 100 possessions better with Holiday on the court). Milwaukee went 5-5 without him. Milwaukee had won five in a row before Tuesday’s loss to Denver, and the team’s play at the end Sunday to beat the Clippers was a very good sign — look at the ball movement in the clutch that led to the Giannis Antetokounmpo dagger dunk.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (23-12 LW 6). Philadelphia has won 5-of-7 with some quality victories in the mix — Toronto, Dallas, Indiana — and all of that has been built on a defense that has been best in the league over those seven games (and 5.5 per 100 better than their season average, via Cleaning the Glass). The offense and has stumbled some in there, Tobias Harris missed games and Joel Embiid missed midrange shots he’s been hitting all season, but the defense is the kind of foundation the team needs to contend the Bucks and Nets in the East.

Clippers small icon7. Clippers (24-13, LW 4). The Clippers remain contenders near the top of the West, but they have been unimpressive in the clutch this season (as evidenced Sunday against the Bucks). Offensively, the Clippers hunt mismatches with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the final minutes, but they get out of their offensive flow to do it and the ball movement stops. The Clippers become predictable, and predictable is defendable. Los Angeles needs another point guard/playmaker. As much as the offense struggles in the clutch, the defense has been worse — near the worst in the league in those minutes — if that doesn’t change, the Clippers will be fishing early this season.

Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (20-15 LW 8). As was evidenced when it put up 128 against Milwaukee Tuesday night, the Denver offense has found a groove. Nikola Jokic has been in an MVP-level groove all season, but Jamal Murray has started to join him after a slow start. The problem has been the other end of the floor, where the Nuggets are 19th in the league, and that has been a little worse of late (22nd in the league over the last eight heading into a strong effort against the Bucks). Denver has to get stops like it did against Milwaukee to be a threat to return to the conference finals.

Warriors small icon 9. Warriors (19-16, LW 11). Kelly Oubre Jr. has found a comfort level and a role that works for him of late (or, maybe it’s a mirage and his roller coaster of a season has climbed to the top for a while). He’s averaging more than 18 points a game and shooting better than 40% from three over his last 20 games. The Warriors offense has been better of late — not good, but better — and combined with a quality defense they are racking up enough wins that the Warriors could avoid the play-in games with a little luck. Good to see Stephen Curry back in the three-point shooting contest, especially going up against Booker.

Spurs small icon 10. Spurs (18-13, LW 10). LaMarcus Aldridge has come off the bench since his return from injury, and he had a strong 21-point game against the Pelicans (a Spurs win). He likely continues in that role considering the strong play of Jakob Poeltl at the five, and the fact San Antonio had a negative net rating with Aldridge in the starting lineup. The Spurs come out of the All-Star break with a tightly-packed schedule (because of the COVID postponements) and 6-of-7 on the road.

Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (19-14, LW 9). The coach Terry Stotts update on CJ McCollum was not promising; it sounds as if he will be out until the end of March (at the earliest) recovering from his fractured foot. The offense clearly missed McCollum during the recent four-game losing streak, Damian Lillard continues to play at an amazingly high level but the role players around him started to miss shots (with Gary Trent Jr. struggling in particular). With Denver and Golden State surging, the Trail Blazers need to find some wins to avoid the play-in games.

Raptors small icon 12. Raptors (17-17, LW 12). COVID-19 protocols have hit the Raptors hard, postponing games, just as the team had dug out of its early-season hole and seemed headed in the right direction. Toronto comes out of the break with 5-of-7 on the road, but some very winnable games in there, the kind the Raptors need in the win column to avoid falling back to the play-in games in the East.

Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (17-16, LW 14). Dallas has been outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions this season when Luka Doncic has been off the floor, although that has improved in recent weeks with reserve point guard Jalen Brunson picking up a lot of the slack. More interestingly, the Mavericks are +7.5 per 100 when Doncic and Brunson are paired this season — Brunson can both knock down catch-and-shoot threes and be a secondary shot creator when teams load up on Doncic. Rick Carlisle seems to be leaning on this combo more and more.

Celtics small icon 14. Celtics (18-17, LW 16). The Time Lord’s time has come in Boston — Robert Williams has played well of late and is earning more run. He had 13 points and 8 rebounds against the Clippers on Tuesday, and over his last 10 games he’s averaging more than 8 points a game on better than 70% shooting, with almost two blocks a game as well. Williams and Payton Pritchard are showing real chemistry off the bench during this three-game win streak. Good test against the Raptors on Thursday night.

Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (16-15 LW 18). Justise Winslow has looked more comfortable his last couple of games back after missing the first 25 games of the season; he looked particularly good putting up 20 points on the Rockets “defense.” The Grizzlies have won 5-of-8 and looked improved of late, and the key reason is the second-best defense in the NBA during that stretch, anchored by Jonas Valanciunas in the paint.

Knicks small icon 16. Knicks (18-18, LW 15). Leon Rose’s first year on the job as Knicks president couldn’t have gone much better: New York is .500, sitting as the five seed in the East, and they have the second-best defense in the NBA under Tom Thibodeau. The ultimate sign of success, the Knicks will be on national television a lot in the second half of the season. That said, the schedule gets much tougher after the All-Star break, and that Knicks defense had been aided by teams just missing open threes, that’s not likely to continue. The Knicks have been one of the best stories in the league and their fans should enjoy it, like the New York bench enjoyed this Derrick Rose buzzer-beater.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (17-18 LW 19). Kendrick Nunn earned coming in second in ROY voting last season, but he struggled in the bubble and to start this season. Nunn found his footing again in February: 17.1 points per game, shooting 43.3% from three, and was +5.1 per 100 for the month. Also, I don’t buy the rumor Jimmy Butler turned down the spot to replace Durant in the All-Star Game — the league doesn’t give players a choice, if they did LeBron and others would ditch this year — but it’s a nice spin on Butler’s loyalty to the team and franchise.

Bulls small icon 18. Bulls (15-18, LW 17). Chicago’s defense was torched inside by Nikola Jokic (39 points) this week, but he is just the latest in a long line of big men hurting the Bulls inside this season. Wendell Carter Jr. works hard on the defensive end but has been thrown to the wolves against Embiid, Jokic, Anthony Davis, and more — he is learning some hard lessons. That doesn’t help a team trying to make a postseason push. Chicago sits tied for the nine seed in the East and needs a few more interior stops to keep a playoff or play-in slot in the East.

Pacers small icon 19. Pacers (15-18, LW 13). Indiana has stumbled of late, losing 5-of-6, and the problems have come on both sides of the ball — the Pacers are bottom 10 in offense and defense over the stretch. A lot of things have gone wrong, but the biggest issue may be the team’s struggles to get stops in the clutch, costing them close games as other teams get good look threes. Things do not get easier after the All-Star break, the Pacers have 6-of-7 on the road and face the Lakers, Suns, Nuggets, Nets, Bucks, and Heat (twice). Indy has to find wins in there or risk dropping way back in a tight East.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (15-19, LW 21). If you like shootouts, find the Pelicans on League Pass and grab the popcorn. New Orleans had the best offense in the NBA in the month of February, a 123.2 offensive rating (via Cleaning the Glass). Zion Williamson averaged 20 points a game in the paint in February — he is the best interior scorer in the league. However, the Pelicans had the 29th ranked defense in February, so the team went 7-8 for the month. Look for the Pelicans to be sellers at the trade deadline.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (16-18, LW 20). Charlotte has gone 2-3 on a tough six-game road trip (it ends Wednesday in Minnesota), and while there have been dramatic wins it has been held back by a 29th-ranked defense over the past six games (a net rating five points worse than the Hornets season average). One of those road wins was maybe the most dramatic of the season, coming from eight points down in the final minute thanks to Terry Rozier getting buckets and this Malik Monk game-winner.

Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (13-20 LW 22). The blown lead against Boston Sunday (up five with :45 left) was a punch to the gut, but remember it was the third game in four nights for Washington, and that showed at the end of the game. Washington has still won 7-of-10 and the team is just two games back of the play-in games. Russell Westbrook now owns the single-season triple double record for the Wizards with 10 this season (passing Darrell Walker back in 1990).

Cavaliers small icon 23. Cavaliers (14-21, LW 29). Cleveland is a roller coaster — they lose 10 in a row, then bounce back and win four in a row including beating Philadelphia. While Collin Sexton is having some monster games (39 points against the Rockets) it’s the defense that is the barometer for this team — Cleveland is 11th in the league in defense over its last six games. They get stops, they win. Expect the Andre Drummond trade rumors to pick up after the All-Star break (and maybe a few Kevin Love ones as well, although finding a trade for either is a bit of a long shot).

Hawks small icon 24. Hawks (15-20 LW 23). Fair or not, Lloyd Pierce is out as Atlanta coach and Nate McMillan is in as the interim. McMillan holds guys accountable on defense and makes sure the effort is there on that end, one of the two things Atlanta needs to get into the playoff mix (getting healthy is the other). How good the Hawks defense can be until De'Andre Hunter returns and gets back into shape is up for debate, but the team’s effort on that end of the floor looked better in McMillan’s debut against Miami (although the Heat also missed a lot of good looks in that one).

Thunder small icon 25. Thunder (14-20, LW 25). Oklahoma City is the second “luckiest” team in the NBA — they have the net rating of an 11-23 team, but they have been surprisingly good in the clutch (9-8 in games within five points in the final five minutes) and that has the Thunder record looking more respectable than many expected. The other reason they look good: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is impressive. Just ask the Spurs, he dropped 42 on them.

Kings small icon 26. Kings (13-21, LW 28). A win in Detroit — with plenty of help from the Pistons — has given the Kings their one win in the last 11 games. Their come-from-ahead loss to the Hornets Sunday (leading by 8 with less than a minute to go) may have been the most brutal loss of the year. Sacramento continues to have the worst defense in the NBA (119.5 defensive rating) and is on pace to have the worst defense of all time. Luke Walton’s seat is getting warmer and warmer, and that’s bad news for clipboards in the Sacramento area.

Magic small icon 27. Magic (13-22 LW 24). Nikola Vucevic will be in Atlanta as an NBA All-Star and participating in the Skills Challenge, while the Magic front office will be huddled discussing being sellers at the trade deadline (there is interest around the league in Evan Fournier, among others). Orlando came into the season thinking playoffs but has been ravaged by injuries and now sits as the 14 seed in the East (just three-games out of the play-in spots, but that ground would be hard for this roster to make up.

Pistons small icon 28. Pistons (9-25 LW 27). Isaiah Stewart is fast becoming a bright spot in an otherwise dark season in Detroit. Drafted No. 16 out of Washington last year by Portland, he was sent to Detroit in the Robert Covington trade. When he has been on the court this season, opposing teams are 8.7 points per 100 possessions worse, plus Stewart has found a comfortable offensive role (5.3 points a game but shooting 54.1% overall, plus grabbing 5.8 rebounds a night). Stewart is looking like he could be part of the future in Detroit.

Rockets small icon 29. Rockets (11-22 LW 26). When you have spent years building an offensive structure and identity around one player, and that player leaves, things fall apart. Houston has lost 12 in a row, and while they got a strong haul of draft picks back in the James Harden trade that doesn’t help the short-term pain. Look for the Rockets to be sellers at the trade deadline, there’s a lot of interest in P.J. Tucker, and the Rockets would be open to finding Victor Oladipo a new home but the market for him is not as intense (he’s a free agent after this season intent on testing those waters).

30. Timberwolves (7-28, LW 30). Chris Finch is 0-4 as the new head coach, the team has lost eight in a row, and Malik Beasley is suspended for 12 games, until March 27 (he pled guilty to felony gun charges), removing 20 points a game from the lineup. It’s a rough time in Minnesota, but we knew before Ryan Saunders was fired and Finch hired (in an awkward transition) that the Timberwolves’ problems went beyond the coach and into health and roster construction. Fixing things is going to take time (and just getting D'Angelo Russell and Towns healthy at the same time).

UPDATE: Pistons reportedly agree to massive deal to make Monty Williams new coach

2023 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Denver Nuggets
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

UPDATE: The Detroit Pistons — specifically team owner Tom Gores — got their guy.

The Pistons backed up the Brinks truck and agreed to terms with former Suns coach Monty Williams to be their next head coach, something first reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and confirmed by Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports, among others.

It will be interesting to see how much power Williams will have over player personnel moves in addition to being the coach. Williams reportedly was planning to take a year off from coaching after being let go by the Suns, but he got an offer he could not refuse.

Gores had interviewed the other top candidates, Charles Lee and Kevin Ollie, and decided to make one more big run at Williams before giving one of the first-timers the job. Pistons GM Troy Weaver and Williams worked together back in Oklahoma City. Williams is a defensive first coach known for discipline, and those things were on the top of the Pistons’ coaching wish list.

Williams is one of the most respected coaches around the league, but he did have clashes with players on the roster in Phoenix, most prominently Deandre Ayton. The chemistry in Phoenix that looked so good when Williams took the Suns to the Finals seemed much more fractured by the end. New owner Mat Ishbia reportedly never warmed to Williams, and that combined with the second-round exit for a team with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker was enough to make the change.

Now Williams has a new home — and a massive payday.


Not long after Dwane Casey left the bench and moved into the Pistons’ front office, the Pistons called Monty Williams and tried to make a big money offer to entice him to come, something reported at the time by Marc Stein. Buzz grew around the league that Williams — who was let go by the Suns after they fell in the second round — was going to take a little time off from coaching before jumping back into the grind.

The Pistons have gone through their coaching search — reportedly with former Bucks’ assistant Charles Lee and former UConn coach Kevin Ollie as the frontrunners — but before picking one of them the Pistons are going to make one more run at Williams, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Pistons are preparing to offer Williams in the range of $10 million per year, league sources said, which would put him among the league’s highest-paid coaches. Detroit has been hopeful over the past several weeks that Williams would consider accepting the job, sources added…

If Williams declines the proposal, Lee, a Bucks assistant since 2018, is expected to emerge as the likely choice, league sources said.

This report was echoed by Stein, who added details.

The offers have been consistently estimated to me at $50 million over five years or even $60 million over six years. Sources say that two of the Pistons’ previously reported finalists for the post — Bucks associate head coach Charles Lee and former UConn coach Kevin Ollie — were only summoned to meet face-to-face with Pistons owner Tom Gores for a second time after Williams turned them down the first time.

The phrasing from Charania — “Detroit has been hopeful… that Williams would consider accepting the job” — is no accident, that’s a sign of what they expect to happen.

If you were the owner/PR staff of a struggling team — one that the lottery gods just knocked down to fifth in the upcoming NBA Draft — and you were about to hire a deserving but not well-known coach to lead your franchise, leaking about the big offer you made to the big name coach is smart spin. If Williams takes the money, the Pistons land a top-flight coach. If Williams says “no thanks” then you can tell the fan base you tried.

The Pistons entered last season hoping to make a run to the play-in, but those hopes were dashed when Cade Cunningham was injured a dozen games into the season and missed the rest of it. With Cunningham back along with Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey, Bojan Bogdanovic and the No. 5 pick, expectations of wins will greet whoever is the new coach.

New York Knicks part ways with GM Scott Perry

New York Knicks Introduce New Signees
Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

When Scotty Perry came on board with the Knicks, they felt like chaos personified off the court, and on the court their best players were Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr.

That era seems like another lifetime ago. Perry, first with former team president Steve Mills and then with the next president Leon Rose, brought professionalism and stability to the New York Knicks not really known in the James Dolan era. The Knicks may not yet be contenders, but they have built a 47-win team behind Jalen Brunson with 11 first-round picks in the next seven years (to use or trade for a star). The Knicks are well-positioned for the future and Knicks fans are as optimistic as they have been in decades.

Which is why it’s news that Perry and the Knicks are parting ways, something reported by multiple sources, including Ian Begley at Perry’s contract was up.

It will be interesting to see where the Knicks go from here. Former Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas was added as an executive last season. The Knicks could give Rosas the full-time position or promote another front office member, such as assistant general manager (pro scouting) Frank Zanin or assistant general manager (college scouting) Walt Perrin. Brock Aller already has a vice president title (Vice President, Basketball and Strategic Planning), so it would be an odd transition for him to move to general manager.

Perry should have interest around the NBA should he want to return to a front office job. He will have options.

New York heads into the offseason poised to chase a star free agent, should the right one become available. They also have a clean cap sheet without bad contracts weighing them down, which anchored the Knicks in the standings for years.

Perry deserves some of the credit for that.

PBT Podcast: NBA Finals preview, plus Nurse to Philly, and Bucks as opera


The NBA Finals are here and it’s not the matchup anybody predicted: The Denver Nuggets vs. the Miami Heat.

In this latest PBT Extra podcast, Kurt Helin and Corey Robinson break down that Finals matchup and if the Heat have any chance of slowing down Nikola Jokić. First the pair talk the Heat’s Game 7 win over the Boston Celtics and what this says for the future of the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown era in Boston.

After the Finals, in Corey’s Jukebox, Corey compares the Bucks and the recent hiring of Adrian Griffin as the team’s head coach to the famed Mozart opera Don Giovanni — and that’s not a complement to Milwaukee.

Then the duo get into the news around the NBA: What does Bob Myers leaving mean for the Warriors? Is Nick Nurse a good hire in Philadelphia? And what the heck is Eric Lewis thinking?

You can watch the video of some of the podcast above or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at

Five things to watch in Heat vs. Nuggets NBA Finals (with betting tips)


Nobody had this Finals matchup on their bingo card (well, except ESPN’s Israel Gutierrez, who called this matchup before the season).

The Denver Nuggets were the best team in the West all season and kept improving as Jamal Murray got healthier and gained more confidence in his surgically repaired knee. Still, they entered the playoff facing doubts because we hadn’t seen them play at this level in the postseason since the bubble. The Nuggets answered all the questions.

Miami barely made the playoffs at all, having to come from behind in the fourth quarter of the last play-in game to beat the Bulls. But otherworldly play from Jimmy Butler, players like Caleb Martin stepping up, and a relentlessness no team in the East could match, sees them in the Finals after coming one shot short of this mark last season.

Who will hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy?

Here are four things worth watching, plus some betting advice from Vaughn Dalzell of NBC Sports Edge.

1) What is Miami’s defensive plan against Nikola Jokić?

Nobody has a good answer for stopping — or often even slowing — Nikola Jokić.

It’s been the case for three years now, but especially in these playoffs. The Los Angeles Lakers had the best defense in the NBA after the All-Star break and the best defense through the first two rounds of the playoffs, all anchored by an elite defender in Anthony Davis. Jokić averaged a triple-double of 27.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 11.8 assists a game against them and the Nuggets torched them.

The challenge in guarding Jokić is nobody can do it all that well one-on-one, but the second the help comes — if it comes from where he can see it in particular — he carves a team apart with his elite passing skills.

Miami’s best option to defend Jokić — and what they did in the team’s regular season matchups — is to put Bam Adebayo on him and not send much help. Adebayo is not stopping Jokić one-on-one, but he’s strong and agile enough to make him work for it. Plus, if Jokić is primarily a scorer the Nuggets’ offense is less dangerous — if he scores 35+ points but with five assists the Heat can win; if he has 25 points but 12 assists the Nuggets win handily.

That strategy comes with risks, primarily foul trouble for Adebayo, but also it removes him as a roaming help defender (one of his strengths). The Lakers started with Davis on Jokić but had relative success with others taking the primary job — Rui Hachimura, LeBron James — which allowed Davis to double and help on others. Who on the Heat can take on that assignment? Caleb Martin or Jimmy Butler? Too small. Maybe Cody Zeller or Haywood Highsmith off the bench, but the Heat hurt their offense with those two out there, and neither is exactly an elite defender.

Expect heavy doses of Adebayo, with the Heat strategy being to front the post and make passes into the Joker difficult, and then live with him as a scorer but try not to let him get rolling as a passer. When Jokić is in pick-and-roll actions with Jamal Murray or on the move, expect a team defense to collapse on him.

That all sounds good, but Jokić figures defenses out, which brings us to how the Heat flummoxed the Celtics.

2) Can Denver solve Miami’s Zone?

Miami ran more zone than any team in the NBA this season (in fact, more zone than any team in more than a decade). It works for them because it’s not a conventional zone, they have active defenders out top who push out high, then they have an elite defensive decision-maker and rim protector in the back with Adebayo. More than anything, the Heat play zone with the intensity of man-to-man (something few teams do at any level).

Denver had an impressive 121 offensive rating against zone defenses this season, according to the NBA tracking data at Second Spectrum (for comparison, the Kings had the best offense in the NBA this season at 119.4). The Nuggets have had the best offense against a zone defense in the regular season and playoffs.

One key way to beat a zone is to get the ball to a good passer in the soft middle of the zone, around the free throw line — the Nuggets have Jokić. Denver is also loaded with shooters who can and will knock down shots over the top of the zone (don’t expect a Celtics-like regression in shooting).

Miami will run some zone as a change-up, but it won’t work as a steady diet as it did against Boston.

3) Aaron Gordon on Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler is a tough cover because he is too strong for guards to stop from getting to his spots but too quick for most forwards to stay in front of.

Denver will bet Aaron Gordon is quick enough to at least give Butler trouble (he’s done well these playoffs against Kevin Durant and LeBron this postseason). Gordon has the advantage that Butler is not a natural 3-point shooter, so he doesn’t have to play up incredibly high on him, and Gordon is strong enough to handle Butler’s physicality.

Butler is going to get his, but if Gordon can make him work for it, be physical, and start to take his legs out from under him a little, it’s a huge advantage for Denver.

4) Vaughn Dalzell’s betting recommendations

Game 1 Over Trend: Game 1’s are usually strong bets for the Over. All four Game 1’s of the second round went Over the opening total and both of the Conference Finals went Over the total in this postseason, so Game 1’s are on a 6-0 run to the Over. In the NBA Finals, four of the last five Game 1’s went for 227 or more points. Denver averages 122.0 points per game in three Game 1’s during the postseason and Miami averages 120.0 points per game in three Game 1’s. The total opened at 218.5 and is up to 219.5, so the Over looks like a solid bet.

Game 1 Favorites of -5.5 or More: Since the start of the 2013 postseason, NBA Finals favorites of -5.5 or more points have gone 14-3 on the ML and 12-4-1 ATS. Denver opens as a -8.5 point favorite. Home teams are on a 5-0 ML streak and 4-1 ATS in Game 1’s with an average margin of 14.0 points per victory. The Nuggets’ spread has a lot of value historically, despite -8.5 being such a large number.

(Check out more from Dalzell and the team at NBC Sports Edge.)

5) Wild card role players: Martin and Vincent, or is it Michael Porter Jr.

Role players always make a difference in the Finals.

Miami needs that to happen to have a chance. Caleb Martin was almost the Eastern Conference Finals MVP averaging more than 17 points a game and will have to play at that level again. How much Gabe Vincent meant to this team was obvious in Game 5 against the Celtics when he was out. Max Strus and Duncan Robinson also will be critical — and need to defend well enough to stay on the court — if the Heat are going to make a run.

For the Nuggets, Michael Porter Jr. is a walking matchup nightmare at 6’10” and with the ability to get red hot from 3. Teams tend to put a guard on him — and Miami likes to play small — and Porter Jr. just knocks down shots over the top of them. He could win Denver a game this series just with his shot.

Prediction: Nuggets in 5. This is not a knock on an impressive Miami team and run to the Finals, they earned their way here. Denver is just this good. LeBron said this was the best team he has played against since coming to Los Angeles, and that should tell you all you need to know. The Finals will be a coronation for Jokić.