NBA Fact or Fiction: Is Nuggets-Celtics the NBA Finals we deserve?

Each week during the 2023-24 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

[Last week: LeBron James scoring 40,000 points is more impressive than you think]

This week's topic: Is Nuggets-Celtics the NBA Finals we deserve?

The NBA has boasted five different champions in its past five seasons, and the league has been heralded for its parity and breadth of talent, but have we really seen a Finals between the two best teams since 2018, when the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers met for an unprecedented fourth straight series?

And even then the title winner was a foregone conclusion.

You could argue the 2019 Finals, when the Warriors faced the Toronto Raptors, featured the two top teams, but the outcome was marred by injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. The 2020 bubble was more a test of will than skill. Star absences removed the Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers from serious contention in 2021. The Warriors and Boston Celtics may have been the most talent-laden teams in 2022, but one was a dynasty in its twilight, the other ill-prepared to meet the moment, and Denver was still missing Jamal Murray. The Nuggets broke through in 2023 — against an eighth seed in the Finals.

In other words, the Celtics and Nuggets have circled each other for years, and they are fully formed now, realizing their potential as the two clearest favorites we've had on either side of the bracket in some time.

DENVER, CO - MARCH 7: Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets steals the ball from Jayson Tatum (0) of the Boston Celtics during the second quarter at Ball Arena in Denver on Thursday, March 7, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Give us the Finals we deserve.

We were treated to a nationally televised preview in Denver on Thursday night, and the budding rivals did not disappoint. It felt like a playoff game, even before opening tip, as soon as TNT's Chris Haynes reported that the Nuggets were skipping a visit to the White House in order to prioritize their shot at the No. 1 seed, and the Celtics cleared a questionable Jaylen Brown to play on a sacroiliac strain. Both teams wanted this.

The 48 minutes of hoop felt no different. The Celtics matched Nikola Jokić's return from rest with Jayson Tatum and double bigs, lineup tinkering you might see come June. We saw a random explosion from a role player at home — second-year wing Peyton Watson, whose 11 points for the Nuggets felt like double that. Both teams nearly forced shot-clock violations on back-to-back plays midway through the fourth quarter. And Jokic screamed at referee Tony Brothers so loud he nearly stopped play. This was postseason basketball.

It was also a litmus test of how the series might play out. The Celtics were overly reliant on 3-pointers (29% on 38 attempts), turned the ball over too much (12 times, leading to 16 points for the Nuggets) and closed quarters poorly (Denver outscored them by a total of 22-6 in the final minute in each of the four quarters), as Tatum no-showed another spotlight outing (15 points on 5-for-13 shooting and five turnovers) and head coach Joe Mazzulla tested some bizarre lineup combinations (i.e. double bigs during Jokic's rest?). Same old flaws.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets were as advertised. They beat everyone with a thousand cuts — almost literally on Thursday, as Aaron Gordon repeatedly found space behind Boston's defense. He's a human dunker's spot, a moving target for Jokic's cannon. They don't need 3s to win — good thing, because they shot 4-of-21 from distance (19%). They were lights out from everywhere else, especially mid-range, where they shot 61.5% from the spots where the Celtics funneled them. And Jokic (32-point triple-double) did the rest, backing everyone, including Kristaps Porziņģis, close enough for his footwork to find clean looks at the net. Like clockwork.

So, why should we anticipate anything different than the three straight wins Denver has registered against Boston? Don't expect Denver to win in transition by an eight-point margin (19-11) every time. Hope Mazzulla never plays his seventh, eighth and ninth men at the same time at any point in a playoff game. Figure Tatum makes that wide-open corner 3 he had to give Boston the lead in the final minute nearly 50% of the time.

Well, maybe not in that moment, but you get the point. Both games between the two teams this season came down to the final minute. Since the 2018-19 season, when the Nuggets first made the playoffs in the Jokić era, they are 6-6 against the Celtics, who are +48 in those meetings. Boston wins a ton of blowouts. Denver executes in close games. Either way, this is our best shot at the first Game 7 in a Finals since 2016.

Don't believe me? Who better are you going to throw at the Nuggets? The Milwaukee Bucks' 15th-rated defense? The Philadelphia 76ers and a hobbled Joel Embiid? The Heat again? Boston's ceiling is higher than any other team in the Eastern Conference by a wide margin. The top-rated offense and second-rated defense. The 11.1 net rating that rivals some of the most dominant teams in NBA history. These are real.

You need every ounce of it against a Western Conference that is looking increasingly less formidable for the defending champions. The Oklahoma City Thunder haven't won a playoff series, much less three, since 2016. The Minnesota Timberwolves just lost Karl-Anthony Towns to knee surgery. Who could've imagined James Harden's Clippers might fade late in the season? And everyone else is struggling to stay out of the play-in tournament. What fresh hell might a first-round series with Denver — easily the West's best team since the All-Star break (7-1, +10.1 net rating, now one game from the No. 1 seed) — be for any of them.

Denver and Boston is the Finals you want. It's about time the class of the league takes its brightest stage.

Determination: Fact. Nuggets-Celtics is the NBA Finals we deserve.