NBA Finals matchup of Nuggets-Heat shows why the regular season — all 82 games — still matters

That sound of silence is the first day in some time the NBA didn’t have a high-stakes competition on the horizon, a much-needed exhale before the Finals begin in two days.

It hasn’t just been the unpredictable NBA playoffs that had the sport taking center stage for the past month; it has been games with implications since February’s All-Star Game.

The race to finish the regular season, with the play-in tournament being featured so prominently into team planning as well as the execution of this postseason, should mean an end to all the nonsense surrounding the criticism of the 82-game schedule.

The Miami Heat certainly tinkered around with lineups and rotations, and battled through injuries to key players through the season and into the playoffs, but to believe they scoffed at the regular season seems a bit ambitious.

Their playoff run has been one for the ages to this point; not just an eighth seed that had to battle to get out of the play-in after a loss to Atlanta, but beating arguably the two best teams in the league on their road to June. Short of the 1995 Houston Rockets, a sixth seed on the way to a repeat, one would be hard-pressed to find a tougher road.

Those Rockets beat a 60-win Utah team in the five-game first round, rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to beat Charles Barkley and the 59-win Phoenix Suns in the semis before taking down the team with the league’s best record, the 62-win San Antonio Spurs in the West finals.

For the Heat, they weren’t going to duck anyone in the playoffs but anyone in their right mind wouldn’t sign up for Milwaukee and Boston without home-court advantage if they had their choice.

While the results have been shocking across the board, bringing an almost NCAA tournament nature to the proceedings, it would be wise not to diminish the value of the regular season.

For years after playoff expansion in 1984, the call was that upsets were few and far between, and once the first round expanded to seven games in 2003, that felt even less likely.

But this season, two play-in teams that had just enough championship equity found themselves in the Final Four — the Heat and Los Angeles Lakers.

And the team that some would say treated the regular season like an unnecessary exercise found themselves unable to make championship magic a few weeks ago, the Golden State Warriors.

It’s not to say had a few breaks gone their way they could’ve stood face-to-face with Denver, but that machine looks like a juggernaut.

And the Nuggets are largely here because they treated the regular season with the respect it deserved. Yes, they slumped. Yes, there were hiccups with their team defense to start the season and there were questions about the long-term plan with Jamal Murray’s return from injury, but there actually was a plan. And they knew the habits built in October to April would manifest into sweat equity in May.

The Nuggets have been the one team who seemingly hasn’t taken a night off in the playoffs, and it stems from their regular-season approach.

The Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokić and Michael Porter Jr. as they swept the Western Conference finals in Los Angeles on May 22, 2023. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

The critics who didn’t believe they could make it through the treacherous West have had to eat their words since, same with those who’ve derisively poked fun at “Heat Culture.” Miami wasn’t the top seed like last year, but there was an appropriate approach.

The league can’t be all things to all people, so those who’d wish to invalidate these results will do just that.

If you ran a simulation of these playoffs one more time, would we still have these two teams standing tall? It’s hard to say, although Denver inspires more confidence.

But with the recent coaching changes in a year where many thought the sidelines would be quiet, it speaks to an increased level of expectations from front offices who saw the regular season play out and believed their team had a strong chance of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Usually, there are fewer than a handful of teams with realistic Champagne dreams, while a dozen others fool themselves.

This season, you got the feeling as many as eight teams could make a run this far.

That, my friends, is called parity — an elusive quality the NBA says it wants but we’re not actually sure we believe it, simply because the league doesn’t know how the public will react to it.

The NFL’s gift is making so many teams feel they’re a critical element of the Super Bowl process, which makes every week feel so monumental in its 17-game race.

The Miami Heat pose with the Bob Cousy Trophy after defeating the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals on May 29, 2023 in Boston. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

The NBA is a little different. It’s a marathon full of attrition with a few mirages along the way. Could the league do without a hokey midseason tournament? Sure, but there were many who turned their noses up at a play-in tournament — something that was implemented as a cash grab and a way to disincentivize tanking.

Well, Adam Silver can throw on a leather bomber and stand on an aircraft carrier with a thumbs-up to say “mission accomplished.”

There were some dull nights early in the season, but that’s baked into a seven-month grind. The sprint, however, to playoff positioning after the All-Star break was a great mouthwash after the ghastly midseason exhibition in Salt Lake City.

Rarely was there an evening without playoff implications, as some teams eschewed the chance at obtaining better odds for a once-in-a-lifetime prospect to actually, shockingly, show their fans who invest year after year that they care.

Or at least the appearance of it, no?

No matter how this all ends, the connective tissue, or even the scar tissue from these two proud franchises will weave a story worth telling. One that realistically started in September and worked its way through the winter and spring before hitting a climax on summer’s eve.

That’s a story the NBA can sell and embrace.