NBA Finals: Series preview, best bets for Denver Nuggets & Miami Heat

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Series Price [Via DraftKings]: Denver Nuggets (-400) Miami Heat (+310)

After forty-six days of NBA postseason games there are only two teams left standing. 

The top-seeded Denver Nuggets romped through the West with a 12-3 SU/9-6 ATS record, handling the conference with relative ease like it did throughout the regular season. On the other side is the Miami Heat, which needed an arduous journey through the play-in tournament and the top two seeds in the East to make it to this point.

Despite the different paths both teams do have one thing in common: A lack of respect from the betting market throughout the postseason.

Bettors came in against Denver in the first round, with many taking wagers on the Timberwolves to win the series outright or to stay within 1.5 or 2.5 games. Phoenix opened as the series favorite in the conference semifinals even though it did not hold homecourt. The Nuggets were only -145 favorites against the Lakers, a team they ousted in just three games.

For Miami, it is understandable that an eight-seed which needed a 12-0 run to beat their opponent in the play-in finale would not be thought of as a contender, but as the wins accumulated the respect did not. The Heat are 15-5 ATS in this postseason, a clear indicator that the market was low on this team throughout the tournament. The most recent example being a +425 price on them to beat Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals, a feat which was accomplished albeit in more games than expected.

Bettors who rode either, or both teams, throughout the playoffs were rewarded, but now both meet with a championship on the line. Let’s take a look at the matchups on the court, how they will play out and how we can use that for bets in the series.

Series Overview

Denver is favored in this series for a reason. The Nuggets not only have homecourt, but they have the best offense and the best player in Jokic.

Through 15 games Denver has averaged 121.7 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time with a +9.2 net rating; both figures the best in the NBA postseason. Much of that offensive production stems from the play of Jokic who has averaged 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists per game, but also from Jamal Murray who has put up 27.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists himself.

The Heat are a capable defensive team, and that has been the case all season. Miami allowed just 113.4 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time in the regular season, and their defensive rating in the postseason has improved by 1.2 points (112.2). 

Their defensive success can be attributed to Erik Spoelstra, and his love for mixing in a 2-3 zone defense which flummoxed their opponents. Milwaukee only managed 0.95 points per possession against it in the first round, and Boston was even worse at 0.90 per possession in the conference finals. However, that success won’t be as easy to come by against Denver.

The Nuggets averaged 1.21 points per possession against zone defenses this season, the second-best offensive rating against zone this season, according to Second Spectrum. Having a skilled center like Jokic who can pass over the top, or make you pay by isolating defenders on the wing is a way to beat a zone. It provides a massive problem for the Heat, as their best weapon on defense could be made obsolete.

Denver also has the shooters to punish Miami for playing a 2-3 zone as often as they do. Michael Porter Jr. is shooting 40.8% from beyond the arc on 6.9 attempts per game, Murray is hitting 39.8% of his 3-point attempts and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the leader of the pack at 41.1% on 4.9 attempts. The Nuggets can also take advantage of wide-open looks from deep, often a symptom of facing a zone defense, as they have hit 37.9% of their uncontested looks in this postseason.

Frankly, it is unlikely that Miami can really limit this Denver offense. Their man-to-man defense is sound, but that would leave a defender like Bam Adebayo to defend Jokic and that is not a matchup that works for the Heat. Jokic is 17-of-27 with Adebayo as his primary defender over the last two seasons, and he has shot 68% from the floor against Miami overall in those games.

That means the Heat will have to match the offensive output of the Nuggets in this series and that is a tall task.

Outside of its defensive play, Miami got to this point with some incredible shooting performances. They have hit 38.5% of their 3-point attempts in this postseason, and a remarkable 44.7% of their long mid-range shots. That is a big change for a team which shot 34.8% from deep and 42.4% on long jumpers in the regular season. They will need every bit of that shot making in this series, but it is fair to wonder if that carries over.

Miami leads the postseason by a country mile in shooting on uncontested 3-point attempts (45.6%). They hit 58% of their wide-open 3-pointers against Boston, the best figure in a series by a team in the last 10 years, and shot an insane 54.5% on contested 3-point attempts against Milwaukee. These figures are extreme and unsustainable, but those banking on regression for the Heat shotmaking are very much in the hole this postseason.

Having said that, the Nuggets have been very sound in their defensive play in this run to the Finals. They have allowed the lowest frequency of wide-open 3-point attempts of the teams that have played in more than one series (14.5%), and they have allowed only 112.5 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time. 

If that shooting regresses at all for Miami then there is going to be a much heavier load on Butler to provide the scoring by hunting mismatches and getting to the free throw line. He is perfectly capable of doing that, but that might wear him down along with his likely defensive assignment of hounding Murray. We also do not know if Butler is healthy, as he has shot just 42.5% from the floor since injuring his ankle at the beginning of the series with New York.

Overall, the Denver Nuggets just have too many advantages. They have the best player on the court, they have homecourt advantage and that carries an inherent advantage due to the altitude a thin Miami Heat team will have to play in. I believe that those advantages will lead to Denver winning this series, and that leads to these three best bets.

Denver Nuggets -1.5 Games (-160)

I have not beat my head in as much as some trying to go against this Miami Heat, but I have taken my lumps. I believed that Milwaukee would oust them quickly, and laid 2.5 games with Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals thinking the regression would finally hit. Neither came to fruition, but this is the best opportunity for it to happen. Denver is sound enough in every aspect to take advantage of Miami’s shortcomings in this series, and the quiet part is that there is no massive mismatch on the bench. 

Michael Malone is a fantastic head coach, and he has shown throughout the postseason he is capable of advanced schemes and adjustments that put his team in positions to win. The most recent example is countering Los Angeles putting Anthony Davis away from Jokic defensively and allowing him to roam. Malone consistently isolated Jokic on smaller defenders away from Davis, which gave him space to operate on a much smaller defender, leading to more offensive success.

Denver is also the more consistent shooting team which has led the league in 3-point shooting in these playoffs (39.8%) while not needing to rely on outlier shooting statistics like high percentages on contested or uncontested looks. 

This is also a cheap series price given the number for the first game of the series. Denver is laying 8.5 in Game 1 but only -400 on the series. Boston laid an identical number in the first game against Miami, but were -550 favorites in the series. That leads me to believe this series price is cheaper than it should be, and the market seemingly agreed when it pushed this price in Denver’s direction. If there is value in the series price then there is value in the other markets, and I believe the Nuggets can win this in six or fewer games at a higher probability than -160 would indicate.

Finals Leader Total Points: Nikola Jokic (+115)

As previously mentioned, Jokic has owned his matchup with Adebayo in the past, so any possession in which those two meet one-on-one the advantage will go to Jokic. It would make sense that Miami tries to help in that matchup by sending a double-team, but Jokic is good enough to make any team pay with his pass. So, what if the Heat do nothing?

In the three losses this postseason Jokic has averaged 42.0 points on 61.3% shooting from the floor. In the 12 wins his scoring average drops to 26.9 per game. In other words, when Jokic has to carry the scoring load because others are not involved the probability of Denver winning is lower. That will likely be one of the early strategies for the Heat.

Miami will likely be happy with allowing Jokic to matchup with Adebayo one-on-one and score at will, because the biggest effort will be made to limit the scoring opportunities of the others around him. That strategy will lead to high-scoring contests for Jokic and a very good chance he leads the series in scoring. If that is the case, then a play at +115 is worth making.

Finals Leader Total 3PA Made: Michael Porter Jr. (+380)

If the Heat make stopping others a priority then at the top of the list will obviously be Murray, who will likely draw Butler as a primary defender throughout the series. If that is the case then the Heat have to decide where to put Caleb Martin and Max Strus on defense. Both are undersized options for either Aaron Gordon or Michael Porter Jr. and the combination of those factors could lead to a big series for Porter.

Porter will likely have a smaller defender on him that he can shoot over the top of, even on contested looks. In the possessions that Miami decides to play zone Porter will benefit as well, being a 44.2% catch-and-shoot threat from beyond the arc. He is also just behind Murray in 3-point makes (2.8) and if Murray is going to have Butler on him as a primary defender that cuts into his opportunities to make 3-point shots.