The Nuggets clinched their spot in the NBA Finals over one week ago with a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers. Now, Denver knows its opponent. Game 1 of Nuggets-Heat is Thursday at Ball Arena.

Here are five thoughts on the series.

Nikola Jokic vs. Eric Spoelstra

Nikola Jokic cooks Bam Adebayo and has for the last several years. The Nuggets have won six straight games vs. the Heat, and over the last two years (four matchups) Jokic is averaging 23.8 points (68.4 FG%, 60 3P%), 13.5 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per game and shooting 17-27 (63%) when defended by Adebayo, per Overall, Jokic is shooting 68% against the Heat across Denver and Miami’s last four meetings.

Jokic should and will eat Adebayo alive if guarded 1-on-1. So while I expect Erik Spoelstra to open Game 1 with Adebayo guarding Jokic, I don’t expect that matchup to stick for long. But the thing is the Heat don’t have a ton of options in reserve. Miami opened the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston with Kevin Love starting at power forward. By Game 6, Love was out of the rotation. The Heat’s only other big man that played actual minutes in the series was Cody Zeller, and he was used sparingly. It’s more barbecue chicken for Jokic. Miami has the worst frontcourt depth and the least amount of big man size of any opponent that the Nuggets have faced in these playoffs.

It’s why Spoelstra will have to throw a lot of small ball looks at Jokic where Jimmy Butler, Caleb Martin, and Haywood Highsmith are guarding him with Adebayo providing help defense while he sags off Aaron Gordon. Of course, the Nuggets have seen that scheme plenty of times in these playoffs. They’re comfortable against it, especially after the Lakers series. Denver will be more than ready for Miami’s version of the “Rui Adjustment.”

Also, the Heat will run plenty of zone against Denver and hope that the Nuggets’ shooters go cold as the Celtics did in Game 7. The Nuggets should have no problem scoring against that alignment either. You couldn’t craft a better zone buster in a basketball lab than Jokic. The Nuggets are the second-best 3-point shooting team of the playoffs (behind the Heat) too.

Jimmy vs. Jamal

Get your popcorn ready. The analysis here is that this is a matchup that features two of the NBA’s premier playoff risers. And this matchup will be a dogfight. Two dudes who just love the game, are the fiercest of competitors and have the utmost confidence in themselves.

I’m sure that high up on the Heat’s game plan will be to get physical with the Nuggets and try to frustrate Denver out of the rhythm that it’s been in all postseason long. Jimmy Butler will do what he can to make that happen. He’ll try and get into Jamal Murray when those two are matched up (I expect Aaron Gordon to be Denver’s primary matchup on Butler in the series — it’s a matchup where Gordon could far really well). The Heat will try and pressure Murray full-court and wear him out — that’s the game plan against the Nuggets’ starting point guard. Butler will try and get under Murray’s skin. He’ll attempt to frustrate Murray and throw him off course. But no team has consistently been able to do that in these playoffs.

Stopping Miami’s role players

The Heat’s role players were sensational in Miami’s Game 7 win.

Caleb Martin, who’s become Miami’s second-most reliable scorer in the playoffs, scored 26 points on 11-16 shooting. He had three games of 20+ points in the Eastern Conference Finals and is shooting 44% from 3 in the postseason on almost five attempts per game. Against the Celtics, he averaged 19 points on 60-49-88 shooting splits. Martin has been unreal.

Duncan Robinson tallied 10 points off the bench in Game 7 and is converting on 45% of his 3s in these playoffs. Max Struss can shoot the rock too. Gabe Vincent has hit big shots. Kyle Lowry also stepped up in Game 7.

The Nuggets have the types of defenders that can limit those players. This will be a huge defensive series for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, and Christian Braun. All three Nuggets defenders can stick on those Heat shooters. Then again, Boston is a great defensive team that couldn’t hold Miami’s others in check.

Rest vs. Rust

The Heat have momentum on their side. Finding a way to get to the Finals as an eighth seed and going into Boston to snatch Game 7 is a real thing. That’s something that Miami has, can feel confident about, and can take into this Finals matchup.

But I think that momentum ends once Game 1 tips off. The Nuggets have been waiting — in altitude — for over a week. They’re rested and have been eager to play again. I’m confident that the Nuggets will be energized, locked in, and able to flip the switch. Remember all the concerns around how poorly Denver ended the regular season and that it would filter into the playoffs? Now remember how the Nuggets played in Game 1 vs. the Timberwolves? I’m not worried about the rust.

The Heat will have heavy legs in Game 1 in Denver after their seven-game series. The rest that the Nuggets have gotten is a huge advantage. I’m predicting a Game 1 blowout and a Nuggets win — just like Denver blew out Minnesota and Phoenix in the opener of those series (Game 1 vs. the Lakers was also a blowout until the fourth quarter.)

Respect the Heat

This is a series that the Nuggets should win. Full stop. You could even say that this is a series where Denver should cruise. I wouldn’t be mad about that statement either. The Nuggets are just significantly better than the Heat and they match up well with Miami, but that doesn’t mean this series will be a completely smooth ride.

No one thought the Heat were going to beat the Bucks — OK, we all knew they’d beat the Knicks — and no one thought Miami would beat Boston. The Heat are a battle-tested, foxhole, strong-willed, physical, determined, group full of dogs that’s not going to roll over in the face of adversity. Miami is by far the toughest team that Denver has faced in the playoffs.

They have a championship-winning coach who may be the best tactician in the NBA. They have leaders. They have Finals experience, and they’re here again for a reason. They stay together. They won’t fray apart. They’re a real team and are like the Nuggets in that respect. The Basketball Gods fully approve of this Finals matchup.

The Nuggets can’t and won’t overlook the Heat. They respect Miami, and I think Miami respects them.


Harrison Wind is the Denver Nuggets beat reporter for DNVR Nuggets. Hear him every day on the DNVR Nuggets Podcast. Follow Harrison on Twitter - @HarrisonWind