8:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Nuggets -9, Over/Under: 208.5
A new NBA Champion could very well be crowned tonight, as the surging Denver Nuggets return to Mile High one win away from securing their first-ever Larry O’Brien Trophy, while the desperate Miami Heat simply look to prolong this series as long as they can in this, Game Five of the NBA Finals from Ball Arena. As only the second Eight Seed to ever reach the Finals, the Heat (44-38, 8th in Eastern Conference) have been accustomed to being counted out with their collective backs against the wall, but after four games of this particular matchup with the Nuggets, it feels as if they’re on the precipice of finally tapping out. So, why the sudden pessimism, you ask? Is this not the same team that bounced back in the Play-In after getting embarrassed on their home floor against the Hawks and looked dead in the water against the Bulls, only to rally to victory? Is this not the same group that pounced all over the top-seeded Bucks in the First Round, then later raced out to a 3-0 lead over the mighty Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals before utterly obliterating them at the Garden in Game Seven? Yes, this is that same team, ladies and gentlemen, but it also seems that they have indeed hit their ceiling. It’s awfully ironic that Miami appears to be following the same path of the only other Eight Seed to reach this stage, the 1998-1999 Knicks who eliminated the top-seeded Heat in the opening round of the playoffs; after three successive upsets, New York was ultimately outclassed against San Antonio, who bested them in just five games en route to claiming their first NBA Title. Sounds familiar, no? Though (Head Coach) Erik Spoelstra’s troops have proven to be vastly better in this postseason than they were during the bulk the of the regular campaign, this series has proven that they simply aren’t up to Denver’s caliber; the Heat have now lost all but three of their last sixteen meetings with the Western Conference Champions, including three of four in these Finals. In this case, the numbers tell the story as Miami has looked both lethargic and unimaginative on the offensive end of the hardwood, averaging just 98.3 points on 42.4% shooting from the field, while getting beaten in a number of important categories such as Points in the Paint (-40), Fast Break Points (-16), and Free-Throws (21). The one thing that they could hang their hat on seemed to be three-point shooting, as the Eastern Conference Champions netted 37.6% of their treys between Games One and Three, outscoring their opponent by FIFTY-ONE points in that regard, but that advantage proved to be fleeting in Game Four’s 108-95 defeat; Spoelstra’s side finally went cold from beyond the arc, nailing just 8-of-25 attempts (32.0%) as the Nuggets in turn torched them on 14-of-28 shooting (50.0%) for a +18 advantage. However, that wasn’t the only area in which the hosts collapsed, folks, for after committing a mere twenty-three turnovers through the first three games, they turned over the basketball FIFTEEN times in Friday night’s affair, a near 75% increase, which the visitors were happy to turn into seventeen points. Even the first efficient performance from (five-time All-NBA Swingman) Jimmy Butler (25/7/7 on 9-of-17 shooting) wasn’t enough to make the difference, as much of the supporting cast failed to make much of an impact. Could this be where relying upon so many undrafted players finally come back to haunt the Heat? We’ve waxed poetic about the club’s Heat Culture throughout this postseason, for Spoelstra & Co’s ability to take develop a cadre of young, undrafted players and turn them into solid contributors is second to none, but that approach appears to have an expiration date. For the second time in this series, Max Strus failed to score, while Gabe Vincent, who totaled twenty-three points in Miami’s lone victory, finished with just two points on 1-of-6 shooting (16.7%). Even Bam Adebayo (pictured above alongside Butler), who has taken on multiple roles as primary distributor on offense and chief defender of Nikola Jokic (more on him in a bit) on defense, may have totaled twenty points and eleven rebounds, but was also responsible for SEVEN of his team’s fifteen turnovers. In the end, it just feels like this is a team that has finally ran out of gas. From a betting perspective, the Heat failed to meet bettors’ standards in the regular season in amassing a 31-49-2 record against the spread, though have managed to flip the script in these playoffs where they have covered the number in fifteen of their twenty-four postseason outings (.625). With that being said, Miami is both 3-7 straight-up and against the spread over their last ten games overall, and now find themselves in a must-win scenario to keep their season alive. As we’ve come to recognize of over the last seven weeks, they’ve really earned their money as underdogs, which as an eighth seed is a role that they’ve played many times in these playoffs; Butler & Co are a commanding 12-6 against the spread during this postseason when receiving points from the oddsmakers, though it appears that even that that magic is leaving them, as they have failed to cover three of their last four such games.
Meanwhile, history is on the verge of being made in Denver, as the Nuggets (53-29, 1st in Western Conference) find themselves on the verge of winning the franchise’s first-ever NBA Title. Indeed, this is quite the turn of events for a franchise that isn’t necessarily synonymous with success; a competitive ABA club pre-merger, Denver was an entertaining, high-scoring outfit in the 80s, only to suffer through a dreadful run during the 90s, before earning a slew of postseason appearances in the 2000s. However, those runs rarely bared any fruit as they were eliminated in the first round NINE times in ten years, which makes their current form all the more satisfying. (Head Coach) Michael Malone’s troops did not enter this season as championship favorites, but over the course of six months positioned themselves as the most consistent team in a wild and crazy Western Conference. Despite not possessing the championship clout of the Lakers or Warriors, nor the outright star power of the Suns or Clippers, these Nuggets outlasted them all en route to putting together what has been an excellent postseason run that compares quite favorable with champions of the past; Denver has posted an offensive rating of 120.7 and a defensive rating of 111.8 for a net rating of +8.9, which would rank third behind only the 2017 Warriors and 2001 Lakers over the last twenty-three years. As for any perceived lack of star power, none could overlook the play of (two-time MVP) Nikola Jokic who is shining bright on the grandest of stages. The towering Serbian has been nothing short of masterful in these playoffs, nearly averaging a triple-double with 30.1 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 9.8 assists, while netting 54.0% of his attempts from the field, along with a stunning 46.6% from beyond the arc. With an NBA record TEN triple-doubles during this playoff run, Jokic is making a play at being mentioned with all-time greats of the game, with Finals MVP honors likely all but assured when this series closes. However, while this guy has been nothing short of sublime for a few years now, the reason that the Nuggets have reached this point has been the growth of their supporting cast, particularly that of (young sharpshooter) Jamal Murray. Alongside Jokic, the 26-year-old played a MAJOR role during their team’s trip to the Western Conference Finals in the 2020 Bubble, only for a torn ACL to sideline for nearly two seasons. Finally healthy, Murray (pictured above alongside Jokic) has been very effective, averaging 26.7 points on 47.6% shooting from the field, including 40.1% from downtown, with 5.5 rebounds, 7.1 assists, and 1.5 steals during these playoffs. He and Jokic have been quite the one-two punch for Malone, who has also enjoyed a number of quality performances from other members of the supporting cast, including (Rookie Guard) Christian Braun (15 points, 7 rebounds in Game Three), and the duo of Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown in Game Four where they combined for FORTY-EIGHT points. Arriving at the trade deadline last season, Gordon has proven indispensable on the defensive end, matching wits with the likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and the aforementioned Butler in this postseason, while Brown, added via free agency last summer, has brought an edge off the bench. The former scored a game-high twenty-seven points on 11-of-15 shooting (73.3%) and 3-of-4 from three (75.0%) along with seven boards and six dimes in Friday night’s victory, while the latter poured in twenty-one points off the bench on 8-of-11 shooting (72.7%), including eleven points in the fourth quarter to stave off a late Miami run. From a betting perspective, the Nuggets were more than a solid betting option during the regular season, posting a 44-37-1 record against the spread, while continuing that performance in these playoffs where they’ve covered the number in twelve of their nineteen contests. Denver is 9-1 straight-up and 8-2 against the spread over their last ten games overall, and after seeing seven-game win streak snapped at home in Game Two, proved that they are indeed more than capable of taking their act on the road. Malone’s outfit are 6-3 away from Ball Arena in these playoffs, though Friday night’s victory marked their fifth such win in a row straight-up and against the spread. Furthermore, they are 12-2 straight-up as a favorite, while covering nine of those affairs when laying points. Also, with their triumph in Game Four they have now covered twelve of their last fourteen meetings with the Heat in the regular season or postseason, including nine of the last ten encounters. Jokic & Co must be confident as the scene shifts back to the Rocky Mountains, for teams that have led 3-1 in the NBA Finals have gone on to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy thirty-five times in thirty-six tries, with the only exception being the LeBron James-led Cavaliers in 2016, who toppled the 73-win Warriors in thrilling fashion.