DENVER — Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was fidgety Wednesday as he addressed the media in preparation for a matchup with the Nuggets in the NBA Finals. He was eager to get started, eager to add the Nuggets to the list of upset victims in this playoff run that includes the Bucks, Knicks, and Celtics.
The last time Spoelstra was this anxious was after the Celtics stunned the Heat with Derrick White’s putback in Game 6. He promised his club would be prepared to avoid blowing a 3-0 series lead and make dubious history.
And the Heat exposed the Celtics’ weaknesses in that pivotal Game 7 as Spoelstra advanced to his sixth Finals as head coach. And he appears eager to pull off the same magic against the favored Nuggets.
Spoelstra was asked about the altitude, which should give the Nuggets a decided home-court advantage.
“We’re not getting into any of that stuff,” he snapped. “Our guys are in great shape. They’re ready to compete. If Denver wants to tip this thing off at the top of Everest, we’ll do that.
“This thing is going to be decided between the four lines. They’ve also got to come back to Miami. If you want to make it about that, we’ll turn off the air conditioning and they’ve got to play in 90-degree humidity, sap the [expletive] out of their legs. This thing is going to be decided between those four lines, and we’ll decide it then.”
Perhaps winning that Game 7 in Boston has the Heat believing they can do anything, including winning this series against a team that’s had 10 days off. But there’s a confidence in Miami that does not resemble an eighth seed.
The Nuggets were subjected to watching the entire Eastern Conference finals to find out their opponent, with bags packed and flights arranged for Boston on Tuesday in case the Celtics won. The NBA had its Finals staff in Boston for Game 7 prepping for a potential Game 1.
Everybody had to shift their focus to Ball Arena in Denver.
“I think these are the two last teams remaining [and they] have the most chemistry within each other,” Denver guard Jamal Murray said. “[Kyle] Lowry has been a champion. Jimmy [Butler] has been in the playoffs a ton. I remember we played Jimmy in Minnesota for the eight seed. I forget what year. I think it was 2018. I’m trying to go through the team.”
The coherent theme Wednesday is mutual respect between the teams, and the Nuggets watched closely as the Heat dissected the Celtics with teamwork and chemistry. Miami wasn’t the most talented team in that series but it was the most precise and focused team.
“Drafted or not, they can all play,” Murray said. “They play really well. The handoffs that they do. They put us in a lot of actions. The ball is hopping. They’re unselfish looking for the shot, looking for the best shot. They use the whole shot clock. I think they’re a very well-rounded team and they trust each other. They’ve trusted each other a lot throughout the season. I think that’s what sets them apart from all the other teams in the East that they faced.
“I think they’re really together through the ups and downs. They’re very resilient. Kind of like us in a sense where we’re very resilient. They’re more of a gritty defensive team throughout the season, and we’re more of an offensive powerhouse throughout the season. I think it’s going to be a fun series.”
The Heat won’t catch the Nuggets sleeping or staggering into the series unprepared. Denver does not consider itself favorites despite an undefeated home record in the playoffs and an impressive sweep of the Lakers.
The Nuggets consider themselves underdogs despite the presence of two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. Coach Mike Malone has complained for weeks about the team’s lack of national coverage. Television commentators have marvelled at Jokic’s skill set when they see him play in person, as if they didn’t believe a two-time MVP could be so masterful.
The Nuggets’ last championship appearance was in the American Basketball Association 47 years ago. This is a franchise that has been an NBA afterthought, an entertaining team to watch but not good enough to compete with the likes of the Lakers, Warriors, and Spurs. That was until Jokic arrived, Murray was drafted, and general manager Calvin Booth added a strong supporting cast.
Entering the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the West, the Nuggets were expected to stumble against the Suns and Lakers. They defeated both easily.
“Who said that we are favorites? The media?” Jokic said. “Las Vegas tell us that we were underdog before. That doesn’t . . . It’s not correct, I think. I think we are not the favorite. I think in the Finals there is no favorites. This is going to be the hardest game of our life, and we know that. We are prepared for that. We are prepared for that. So, I think there is no favorites. Definitely I think we are not favorites in this series. I think they’re not either. I think it’s just the Finals. There is no favorites in the Finals, in my opinion.”
Each team has a reason to believe no one else outside the locker room believes in them. But in reality these are the league’s two most cohesive and well-coached teams, making for a compelling series.