DENVER — So, Nikola Jokić: It’s been nine full days since you last laced them up for an honest-to-goodness NBA game, finishing off the Los Angeles Lakers to sweep the Western Conference finals and lead the Denver Nuggets to their first NBA Finals. How’d the time off treat you?
“We going to see tomorrow,” the smiling two-time MVP said Wednesday during the Nuggets’ media availability ahead of Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals on Thursday night.
For most of that downtime, the Nuggets weren’t even sure who they’d be facing when the ball goes up June 1. It wasn’t until late Monday night, when the Heat bounced back from a devastating Game 6 loss to smoke the Celtics in Boston in Game 7 that Denver finally knew its opponent — and, as an added bonus, knew it would be staying in Colorado, holding home-court advantage throughout the championship round.
“It was nice to finally know who we were playing so we could speak about a lot more detail and specifics with the Miami Heat and their personnel and their coverages and their plays,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said Tuesday. “But for our guys having been off as long as we have been, I think we're just excited to play again.”
The million-dollar question, of course: Just how well will the Nuggets play after all that time off?
“That's the thing,” said Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, who averaged 32.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.8 steals per game on 53/41/95 shooting splits against the Lakers. “We’ll take the rest, yeah, but you don't want to pick up bad habits throughout this week. … We don't want to get relaxed.”
Denver exited Los Angeles in one hell of a rhythm, with a 12-3 playoff record and the postseason’s No. 1 offense, scoring a scorching 121.7 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass — a rate of offensive efficiency even higher than either the LeBron James-led 2016-17 Cavaliers team that went on a 12-1 rampage through the Eastern Conference or the Kevin Durant-reinforced Warriors squad that drilled Cleveland in five games. When your engine’s running that hot and you’re forced to put it in neutral for a week and a half, how easily can you get it revved back up again?
“There can be a lot of lag time if you sweep,” said Heat big man Kevin Love, a member of that Cleveland team, which swept the Pacers and Raptors in the first two rounds of the playoffs. (The 2015-16 Cavs dispatched the Pistons and Hawks in the minimum eight games, too.) “I think it's easier said than done to stay sharp, but you know, we expect them to be very sharp come Game 1.”
The Nuggets stayed busy during the break: practices, drill work, treatment and film sessions, staying “locked in the gym, working diligently,” according to power forward Aaron Gordon. “It's not like we've got our feet kicked back, or our hands back and our feet kicked up.”
(The busy work has included several straight days of media availability, which Malone sounded thrilled about: “I'm just following the lead of [Nuggets vice president of media relations] Nick O'Hayre and the NBA, doing what they tell me to do, answering the same questions for a third day in a row. But I love it and I got a smile on my face.” He was smiling, for the record.)
But drills and scrimmages can get only so close to replicating the real thing. Veteran forward Jeff Green, who’s making his second Finals appearance, said that after spending more than a week watching the Miami-Boston series wind its way toward conclusion, he told his wife that he felt like he wasn’t even in the playoffs anymore. Shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, also making his second trip to the Finals after winning the 2020 title with the Lakers, acknowledged the antsiness and said he’d been doing his best to try to help his younger and less experienced teammates remain focused on the task at hand.
“We're going to be a little bit jittery, anxious to play,” Caldwell-Pope said Wednesday. “Just trying to keep [my teammates] calm, knowing the first couple possessions are going to be a lot. Even for myself — I'm feeling anxious right now, to even get out there.”
Nervousness and excitement are just flip sides of the same coin, though, and Denver’s got plenty of reason to be exuberant entering the title round. As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton noted, while the 10-day layoff the Nuggets will have had by the time Game 1 tips off is rare — just the fourth time a team has had that much time between the end of the conference finals and the start of the Finals in the last 20 years — the extra rest hasn’t exactly proven to be a problem: Teams with at least a five-day rest advantage that host Game 1 of the Finals have gone 8-1.
“I think we're ready,” Nuggets guard Bruce Brown said. ”We've been there before. We've had a long break during All-Star. I think we'll be fine. There's no worries there.”
Especially considering those other eight rest-advantaged hosts to win Game 1 haven’t had the Nuggets’ secret weapon. No, not Vlatko Čančar. The other secret weapon.
“Well, the altitude, actually, it is an advantage. It plays a difference,” Gordon said. “I remember when I was in Orlando and coming to play against Denver, it was difficult just to get your first and second wind.”
“Regardless of who we're playing, when we're playing our game at its best, it starts with our defense and our rebounding, and then our running,” Malone said. “When we can establish that pace of play — and once again, we're averaging close to 17 fast-break points a game in these playoffs — that makes it really hard for visiting teams to kind of sustain and stay with that initially. … Yeah, the altitude is here, man. Might as well use it to our advantage.”
As you might expect, though, the Heat — a franchise molded by Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra to be “the hardest-working, best-conditioned, most-professional, unselfish, toughest, nastiest team in the league” — don’t sound particularly concerned about the thin Colorado air.
“We're not getting into any of that stuff,” Spoelstra said Wednesday. “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.”
And while they would’ve loved to finish that final second of Game 6 against Boston to give themselves an extra couple of days, there is a silver lining to the gray cloud of Derrick White’s putback.
“I do think that there's something about, you know, being locked in, coming off a series relatively unscathed and going right into the next [series] a few days later,” Love said. “Game 1 tomorrow. We'll be ready.”
Led, as ever, by Butler, who’s got a combination of scoring, rebounding, playmaking, usage and turnover avoidance in this postseason that’s only been matched before by Michael Jordan — and, perhaps even more importantly, has the key to mitigating those Mile High concerns.
“I just be drinking some water, listen to some music,” he said. “I think that's the formula: You've just got to listen to music, drink water, drink wine, play Spades and dominos.”