The Denver Nuggets and the Miami Heat face off in Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals in Denver on Thursday night.
Denver is the favorite to win the NBA title after cruising through the first three rounds as the top seed in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets are making their first-ever NBA Finals appearance after sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, while the Heat pulled out a Game 7 victory after losing three consecutive games against the Boston Celtics to become the first play-in team and second eight-seeded to reach the final round.
“To get the first Western Conference championship in franchise history means a lot,” Nuggets Coach Mike Malone said after the win. “But I speak for 17 players in the locker room and the entire organization: We are not satisfied. We’re going to enjoy it for a moment. I think it’s going to be a hell of a plane ride how, but we have a lot of work to do.”
Last season, the Nuggets finished in sixth place in the Western Conference and were quickly ousted by the Golden State Warriors in the first round in five games. After the swift exit, Denver made adjustments in the offseason, parting ways with six players from last year’s team.
Denver’s most significant additions over the summer were guards Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who have since become integral members of the Nuggets’ rotation. Brown continued to emerge as an elite defender and averaged double digits in scoring for the first time in his career, while Caldwell-Pope reemerged as a viable contributor.
Denver is led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and bolstered by the return of point guard Jamal Murray and forward Michael Porter Jr. from injuries. Both Murray and Porter missed last year’s playoff series but have returned to become the second and third-leading scorers for the Nuggets.
“They’re both dynamic,” Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra said of Jokic and Murray as he met with the media on Wednesday. “They’re both really good on their own, but they also really complement each other. That’s hard to find in this league — when your best players absolutely complement each other.”
“They both can and have scored 50 in a playoff game, and they both can be facilitators,” Spoelstra continued. “I don’t think either of them cares how many points they score. It’s just about getting the most efficient shot for the offense. So, they play the right way, and that’s something that you have to try to get them out of that rhythm.”
On the other hand, Miami took some steps back in the regular season, finishing as the eight-seed in the East after winning the conference during the 2021-22 regular season. The Heat entered last year’s playoffs as one of the title favorites but lost to Boston in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Heat got its revenge on Monday and advanced to the NBA Finals for the seventh time in franchise history as Caleb Martin capped a series in which he averaged 19.3 points per game.
“A lot of people don’t see the work that Caleb puts in,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. “Y’all see it now because he’s playing out of his mind, but after that Game 7 loss [last year], I feel like he made a necessary effort to be like, ‘I’m going to be the reason why we win a series or be a reason we win games,’ and he showed that throughout this whole series.”
Jimmy Butler and Adebayo have led the Miami playoff run, as Victor Oladipo and Tyler Herro have combined to play in just three games this postseason. Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, and Max Strus have stepped up in their absence, all averaging double digits in scoring.
Butler leads the team with 28.5 points per game in the playoffs and single-handedly won Game 4 of the first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks with a 56-point performance, while Adebayo has been the team’s second-leading scorer all year.
Both teams have plenty of offensive firepower, but coaching experience could become a factor. Spoelstra is coaching in his sixth NBA Finals and has won two titles in his 15 years as the team’s head coach, while Denver’s Malone has not previously made it this far.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals begins at 7:30 p.m. CT Thursday.