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NBA Finals: The 5 most interesting players in an unexpected series

Nuggets-Heat isn’t an NBA Finals matchup that many prognosticators picked two months ago — I know I sure as hell didn’t! — but considering how we’ve gotten here, it ought to be an awfully compelling one.

We’ve got an offensive genius on an all-time playoff heater, just four wins away from cementing himself as one of only 13 players in NBA history with multiple MVPs and a Larry O’B. We’ve got an iron-willed two-way swashbuckler in the midst of his own immortal postseason, having already vanquished three consecutive higher seeds to make good on one podium promise — which leaves just one more to redeem.

We’ve got the postseason’s most overwhelming offense against an attacking amoeba of a defense capable of shape- and scheme-shifting into whatever’s required to grind an opponent’s gears … which ultimately might not mean a whole hell of a lot in the face of a unit fresh off flame-broiling L.A.’s No. 1-ranked playoff D in four straight.

We’ve got injury returns and improbable ascents, statements to make and legacies to define. We’ve got one franchise seeking to burnish its standing as one of the sport’s elite organizations with a fourth championship in the past 17 years; we’ve got another looking to stamp its passport for rarefied air by winning the first title in its 56-year history.

There’s plenty to dig into. So, y’know: let’s.

Let’s take a look at the five most interesting players — to me! — in the 2023 NBA Finals, in context of the questions they will face and the possibilities they might unlock. We begin with the guy who has the toughest job in this series:

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 30: Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat defends Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets during the first quarter at Ball Arena on December 30, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images)

Bam Adebayo

It’s become clear by now that nobody really stops Nikola Jokić; he’s too big, too skilled, too patient, too all-encompassing an offensive threat for any individual defender to put the clamps on him. Just ask Rudy Gobert, Deandre Ayton and Anthony Davis, each of whom has the size, strength, length and capacity to make life miserable on most offensive players … and each of whom the big fella packed up, neatly and securely, before sending them on their way to the tropical offseason destination of their choosing. Hell, not even Rui Hachimura could stop him.

“I just think we've seen everything,” Nuggets guard Jamal Murray told reporters when asked about the strategies opponents have deployed to try to limit Jokić, whether individually or in their devastating two-man game. “We've seen all the adjustments. We've seen the double from the baseline, the double from the top, the sign from a non-shooter to single coverage to — know what I'm saying? We've seen every different type of mixture. We've seen [the Clippers] try to put Kawhi [Leonard] and [Paul George on us] to switch it. We've seen everything. It's all a read. It's all balance. It's all timing.”

As exotic and varied as head coach Erik Spoelstra typically likes to be on that end of the floor, Jokić’s ability to dissect coverages — complemented by a supporting cast featuring multiple knockdown 3-point shooters that finished just outside the top 10 in offensive rebounding rate during the regular season — has led Miami’s lead tactician to mostly play things straight.

Miami has played zone on 16.4% of its defensive possessions overall this season, according to Second Spectrum, by far a league high. Against the Nuggets, though, that rate dipped to 5.9%. Miami has sent double-teams in the post 19.7% of the time against the league at large. Against Denver, though, an extra defender came on just three of 28 post-ups (10.7%). And while the Lakers (briefly) had some success slotting Hachimura and LeBron James onto Jokić with Davis lurking behind him as a deterrent, that blueprint doesn’t feel as replicable here; Kevin Love might be able to bang with Jokić a bit, but would most likely wind up as roadkill, and Adebayo (averaging fewer than one blocked shot per game in his career, holding opponents to a solid-but-not-elite 57.6% shooting at the rim in these playoffs) isn’t the kind of nuclear rim protector AD is.

Small-sample caveats apply, but if Spo doesn’t want the Heat buried under a hail of catch-and-shoot triples, he’s probably going to play Jokić straight up as much as possible, so, again: It’s on Bam. And, as you might expect, given the whole “winning multiple MVPs en route to near-universal acclaim as an interplanetary offensive juggernaut” thing, Jokić has looked pretty comfortable against Adebayo when they’ve matched up over the past few seasons.

In eight meetings dating to the 2019-20 campaign, when Bam became a full-time starter, Jokić has scored 60 points on 26-for-48 shooting (54.2%) with Adebayo as his closest defender, according to Second Spectrum’s matchup tracking data. He also had 31 assists against just seven turnovers with Adebayo as his primary defender in the half-court.

Few defenders in the NBA are as scheme-versatile and physically gifted as Adebayo. But at 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, he gives up so much size and heft to the 6-foot-11, 284-pound Jokic that one-on-one possessions on the block tend to resemble JV-vs.-varsity scrimmages:

It’ll be important for Adebayo to keep himself out of those positions as much as possible — to try to do his work early by pushing Jokić a bit further out on the catch and denying him easy post entries. He’ll also need to crank up his ball pressure when Jokić faces up and stay disciplined enough with his hand and body positioning to avoid picking up the kind of ticky-tack whistles that can land him in foul trouble. Miami has allowed 3.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with Adebayo on the floor than off it this postseason, according to NBA Advanced Stats; as difficult as it’s going to be to limit Denver’s scorching offense with him, the Heat likely won’t have a prayer if he can’t stay on the floor and in the fight for major minutes.

Adebayo will also need to pose a persistent threat on offense, working to make Jokić defend actions in space and looking to exploit seams in a coverage that likes to have the big fella play higher up on the floor in the pick-and-roll. That can create openings for slips and pocket passes that allow Adebayo to roll into Draymond Green-style 4-on-3 attacks against a rotating Denver defense, giving him the chance to create good looks for himself and others:

Bam won’t make all those floaters and pull-ups, and he won’t thread all those high-low needles. But he has to keep attacking, keep pressuring the paint and keep forcing Denver’s defense to account for him. I’m not sure Miami can win this series with him averaging 12 points on 42% shooting, like he did in the final four games against Boston. If the Heat do finish the job, it’ll likely be because Adebayo found a way to turn in the series of his life on both ends, showing the nation why Spoelstra is such a zealous advocate of everything he brings to the table.

“When I talk about our team's competitive will, we are following Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo,” he told reporters after Game 6. “Their will is incredible. If you're a basketball aficionado, the aesthetics might not always be perfect, but you have to admire the competitive spirit out of this group.”

Speaking of “competitive spirit” …

Jamal Murray

… it’s worth taking a step back and appreciating just how cool it is that Murray’s out here, saucing dudes up, four wins away from a championship.

After breaking through into the public consciousness by exploding for 142 points in a three-game stretch in 2020’s opening round and pairing with Jokić to lead Denver to the Western Conference finals, Murray was in the midst of a career-best campaign — 21.2 points, 4.8 assists and 4 rebounds per game on 48/41/87 shooting splits — for a Nuggets team that looked poised to make a title run. And then: disaster.

A torn left ACL cost Murray the final month of the 2020-21 schedule, the 2021 postseason and all of the 2021-22 season. His absence, in turn, cost Denver a shot at legitimate contention in seasons when Jokić won back-to-back MVPs. While Murray rested and rehabilitated, the Nuggets bided their time, trusting what they saw before his injury, what they’d added while he was away, and that a hard-edged player with a relentless work ethic would come back better than ever to serve as the final piece in a championship-caliber puzzle.

Some things are worth waiting for.

After annihilating the Lakers to the tune of 32.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.8 steals per game on 53/41/95 shooting splits, a healthy, rested, balanced and settled Murray turns his attention to a Heat team that favors a physical, aggressive style of play — which is right up the Kitchener, Ontario, product’s alley.

Whereas Minnesota (Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Anthony Edwards), Phoenix (Josh Okogie, Devin Booker) and the Lakers (Jarred Vanderbilt, LeBron James) could all sic bigger, longer, more physical defenders on Murray for spells, the Heat — smaller than Denver just about across the board — probably won’t be able to do that as easily. That likely means that Murray will see a steady diet of Gabe Vincent and Kyle Lowry, both smart and game defenders; Murray has to roast them. He’s got to use his syncopated ball-handling rhythm to get them off balance and create space for his stepback, to use his array of deft pivots and up-and-unders to get clean looks and, when necessary, to just raise up and shoot over the top of the smaller defenders like they’re friggin’ ball racks. (If and when he does that, expect Butler to take over at least some of the assignment … although moving Miami’s best wing defender onto a guard could have deleterious downstream effects, especially if it allows the likes of Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to get hot.)

He also has to continue leaning into the inverted pick-and-rolls that make Denver’s two-man game so difficult to deal with, putting those smaller defenders into actions with the likes of Jokić and Gordon to try to confuse Miami’s coverages and create mismatches for the Nuggets to exploit.

“Three, four years ago, the No. 1 pick-and-roll combo in the entire NBA was Nikola and Jamal, and most people would just assume that it was Nikola setting for Jamal,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone told reporters Tuesday. “It was actually the opposite. It was Nikola handling and Jamal setting. … Some guys like to slip out of every screen because they don't want to make that contact, they don't want to give themselves up. Jamal, from early in his career here, he's shown that he's willing to go and set a screen on a big guy, small guy, doesn't matter, because he's tough.”

He’ll have to show that toughness on the other end, too. You can bet Butler — who has spent three straight rounds hunting smaller guards, slower big men and anybody in between he thinks he can work like a speed bag in isolation — is going to try to find Murray and pick on him. It’s unreasonable to expect Murray to thrive in that spot when All-Defensive Teamers like Jrue Holiday and Derrick White have buckled beneath the pressure Jimmy puts on you possession after possession. But he’s got to make Butler and the Heat work for every point they can extract in those exchanges, and then go back on the other end and give as good as he got.

It’s a tough gig. After the past two years, though, we know that Murray’s been through tougher and come out shining on the other end.

Caleb Martin

It’s possible that, with the Celtics in the rearview mirror and a new matchup posing a new set of challenges, Spoelstra decides to return to the two-big lineup he favored against Milwaukee and New York.

It makes some sense: Denver is a really good offensive rebounding team, pulling in nearly 29% of its misses through the first three rounds, and the Adebayo-Love combo was effective in limiting another elite offensive rebounding team, the Knicks, in Round 2. And if transition play is likely to be a battleground — the Heat and Nuggets rank fourth and fifth in the postseason, respectively, in offensive efficiency in transition, while Denver ranks eighth and Miami ranks ninth in defensive efficiency on the break — then maybe it’d behoove the Heat to reintroduce the possibility of some of those length-of-the-court outlet passes that Love flicked to Butler and Max Strus earlier in the playoffs.

It’s just … I mean, how the hell can you take Martin out of the starting lineup after what he just did in the Eastern finals?

Last season, Martin worked himself from a two-way contract into a role in Spoelstra’s rotation, along the way earning himself a three-year, $20.4 million contract — which looks like an absolute steal right about now — and a chance to replace P.J. Tucker in Miami’s starting lineup. He lost that gig at the All-Star break, when the Heat signed Love after the Cavaliers bought him out; rather than sink into the doldrums, though, Martin made the most of his bench minutes, continued to contribute on both ends and solidified himself as a key part of the second unit as Miami rolled over the Bucks and Knicks.

Martin made his first postseason start in that New York series, when Butler’s ankle injury knocked him out of the lineup in Game 2; he popped for 22 points on 8-for-15 shooting, including 4-for-8 from 3-point land, in a hard-fought and close loss. Afterward, Spoelstra raved about him: “Caleb is a competitor. In his soul, he’s an absolute competitor, and that’s why we’ll all go to battle with him any day.”

He’d sound those same notes throughout the Boston series. When Joe Mazzulla decided to go small, replacing Robert Williams III in the starting lineup with Derrick White, playing Love became untenable; suddenly, he had nobody to guard, and the Celtics just kept targeting him in ball-screen actions to get pretty much whatever shot they wanted. Enter Martin, 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, the foot speed to keep up with the likes of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on the perimeter … and, apparently, enough shotmaking talent and playmaking juice to keep Miami’s offense afloat virtually by himself for stretches. After Martin had averaged 17.6 points on 59.3% shooting through five games, Spoelstra put him into the starting lineup for Game 6 … and he averaged 23.5 points on 62.1% shooting over the final two.

It was a stunning turn of events — well, for we outsiders, at least.

“That might have surprised y'all,” Butler said after Game 7. “To us, he's a hell of a player, hell of a defender, playmaker, shotmaker, all of the above. Everybody has seen Caleb work on those shots day in, day out. It doesn't surprise us. We have seen it every single day.”

“You get to the higher stakes, the further you get along, the more competitors are going to reveal themselves,” Spoelstra said. “Game 7s, or [when you] get to the conference finals — it's not for everybody in this association. Otherwise more players, more teams would do it. You have to be wired a little bit differently, and Caleb is. … He's accepted different roles, but we needed him to be more of a player. With Tyler [Herro] and [Victor Oladipo] out, we've needed more offense.”

Even if Herro can come back from his fractured right hand midway through the series — as is the plan, according to Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes — the Heat will likely still need more offense to keep up with a Denver squad that has produced more points per possession with each passing round. Even if he cools off some from the torrid 71.4% shooting inside the arc and 43.8% beyond it that he’s managed through 18 games, Martin still provides a combination of slashing, shooting and perimeter defense that seems like a hand-in-glove fit for a series where Miami will have to find a way to not only defend big wings like Gordon, Caldwell-Pope and Porter Jr., but to trade baskets with them.

Twenty-one months ago, it wasn’t clear where Martin might fit into the league. Now, his place is as clear as it is nearly unbelievable: at the core of the championship chances of one of the last two teams standing.

“It's super-high-level competition. You can't hide it,” Martin said after Game 7. “You figure out if you're built for these type of environments or not whenever you get into them. I just feel like I've just been continuously prepping and getting ready for these moments, and when these moments come, I feel like I'm ready for them. I feel like I'm built for these type of moments.”

Aaron Gordon

Welcome to your latest miserable assignment, Aaron. After spending your trip through the Western Conference playoffs clamping down on Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, your special present is dealing with maybe the most indefatigable bastard in the whole damn association. Don’t go rushing to thank us.

“Jimmy is a difficult cover for different reasons than the guys I've guarded in the past, like KD and LeBron, KAT,” Gordon said Tuesday. “Jimmy does everything. He does all the intangible things. He gets out in transition. He gets cuts. He gets offensive rebounds. He gets backdoors. He gets spin-outs [for alley-oop passes]. He does a lot of the game within the game, as well as being really skilled. He's a difficult cover. … I just want to make it as difficult as I possibly can for him all night long for 48 [minutes], through an entire series. Just making everything that he gets tough. Make him work for everything.”

The constant strain that Butler puts on all levels of the defense — on or off the ball, handling or screening in the pick-and-roll, driving to either score, facilitate or get himself to the free-throw line, and now with the threat of his pull-up jumper — makes him one of the game’s most potent and least predictable scoring threats. (And seriously, the thing where Jimmy goes from barely ever even looking at the rim from beyond the arc for 82 games to just deciding to take like four threes a night and make like 35% of them come the postseason demands rigorous scientific study.) Dealing with that requires a defender capable of matching Butler’s physicality, athleticism, quickness and poise. Gordon’s got the goods to do that, plus the size to neutralize some of Butler’s bully-ball burrowing; he’ll need to take a page out of the Celtics’ books, too, and refrain from showing off those Dunk Contest hops when Jimmy starts pump-faking in the paint, lest he pick up early fouls that sap some of his aggressiveness and get Miami into the bonus early.

In addition to leading the charge against Jimmy — and probably seeing some time against Adebayo as the “small”-ball center in Denver’s second unit (I’m guessing Spoelstra will have a quick hook for Love and Cody Zeller with a title on the line and lean on Bam even harder than he already has) — Gordon also has to make sure he’s an active participant in Denver’s offense.

At times in this postseason, most notably in the Lakers series, we’ve seen defenders sag off Gordon to focus their attention elsewhere in hopes of gumming up the works of Denver’s free-flowing offense, effectively daring him to beat them with jumpers when the ball swung to him. That’s not exactly the way he’s wired, especially after spending a couple of years having his reality reshaped by playing alongside Jokić in an environment where you can fall into 15 points just by cutting without ever digging too deep into your bag. That could pose a problem against Miami, because if Butler is guarding Gordon, it’s a good bet that a player who leads the postseason in steals and deflections is going to look for opportunities to try to wreak havoc elsewhere — showing extra help from odd angles on Jokic, springing a double onto Murray, trapping Caldwell-Pope off a handoff, etc. — by cheating off Gordon and betting he won’t be able to consistently make Miami pay.

He is capable of doing it, though. After taking just five shots in Game 3 against L.A., Gordon let it rip in Game 4, scoring 22 points on 9-for-14 shooting to go with six rebounds (four offensive) and five assists in something close to a mission statement for what he can be in the context of this meat-grinder of an offense:

If Gordon brings that level of aggressiveness on the offensive end, it’ll make the already tough task of finding a way to slow down this Denver attack even more difficult and further validate the decision to swing the deal to import him from Orlando to turn a pretty good team into a bona fide contender.

Duncan Robinson

Pop quiz, hot shot: Who’s got the largest on-court/off-court differential in these playoffs among Heat players to suit up for more than one game?

… OK, this one probably wasn’t all that hard, because I asked the question under the name “Duncan Robinson” in bold type. Yeah, it’s Duncan Robinson. In the 345 minutes that Robinson has played in this postseason, Miami has outscored opponents by 14.5 points-per-100; in the 545 minutes he has been off the court, the Heat have been outscored by 0.6 points-per-100.

The bulk of that difference has come on the offensive end, where the Heat have poured in 121.1 points per 100 — about what the Nuggets mustered in dispatching the Suns and Lakers over the past two rounds — in Robinson’s minutes. Some of that is contextual; he has played most of his minutes with some combination of Butler, Adebayo, Martin and Lowry in mix-and-match second-unit lineups that have laid waste to opposing reserve corps.

Some of it, though, is that after falling out of the rotation last postseason, being relegated to its fringes this season and missing more than a month following surgery on a finger on his shooting hand, Robinson has finally regained the stroke and rhythm that made him a breakout performer during Miami’s run to the Finals in the bubble.

Robinson is back to firing without compunction and with deadeye accuracy: 44.6% from deep on 10.3 long balls per 36 minutes of floor time this postseason. He’s also looking much more confident and capable of putting the ball on the deck, making plays with the ball in his hands and making sharp cuts off the ball to take advantage of defenders top-locking him to try to keep him from getting to dribble handoffs with Adebayo or running off screens to get to quick catch-and-fire looks at the arc:

Maybe most impressive, though, is that Robinson responded to a pair of super tough misses late in Game 6 …

… by drilling a couple more 3s, cutting hard off the ball, making the plays that are there for him to make and feeling so bold as to troll the TD Garden crowd up 21 midway through the fourth:

A confident Robinson shooting and operating at this clip distorts defenses, opening cracks and crevices for teammates elsewhere; that seems like a mighty useful tool when you’ve got to try to trade baskets with the hottest offense in the known universe. On the flip side, despite his size and willingness to compete, Robinson tends to carry a blindingly bright “KICK ME” sign on his back when Miami is on defense … which seems like a mighty significant burden when you’re trying to slow down the hottest offense in the known universe and especially when said offense has the shooting, offensive rebounding, ball movement and Serbian Professor Hulk to make it incredibly tough to run zone to hide a weaker individual defender.

Whether Robinson can hold up well enough defensively to give his shooting and improved playmaking a chance to make a difference could be an important swing factor in this series. That Robinson has put himself back in position to potentially be a swing factor, though, points directly to the thing that makes the Heat such a dangerous opponent; whether you call it culture, player development or something else, they don’t waste anything. Not possessions, not second chances and not 6-foot-7 snipers who’ve fallen out of favor but just might be useful again one day.