“The biggest challenge of our lives”: Impressed Nuggets well aware of Heat’s historic run

While the Miami Heat continue to prove oddsmakers, NBA historians, and perhaps all basketball fans outside of South Florida wrong, one person they haven’t fooled is Mike Malone.

The coach of the Denver Nuggets has watched the Heat’s magical run through the Eastern Conference from afar, all while coaching his club to the NBA Finals out of the Western Conference.

And now, as these two conference champions collide in Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night in Denver, Malone and his team will not be taking anything lightly.

“For those thinking that this will be an easy series, I don’t know what to say to you people,” Malone said in an NBA Finals press conference Tuesday. “This is going to be the biggest challenge of our lives.”

The Heat are only the second No. 8 seed to reach the NBA Finals, after the New York Knicks achieved the feat in 1999, but numbers in front of teams don’t much matter anymore to Malone, who often tells it like it is in front of the media.

“You get to the NBA Finals,” he said, “and it’s not about seeding anymore.”

And while the Nuggets are the No. 1 seed out of the West, experience is certainly in favor of Miami. This is the second Finals appearance for the Heat in the past four years, after coach Erik Spoelstra’s team advanced to the final round in the 2020 postseason bubble in Orlando. It is also the Heat’s seventh Finals appearance in franchise history.

The Nuggets, meanwhile, are simply trying to win their first title in their first-ever appearance in the title round. Denver has rolled through the postseason — perhaps even easier than Miami has — but the grind of a Finals series in front of the world – and across time zones – will be new to them.

For the Heat, with three NBA titles already on their resume, bench play will be critical, especially after a seven-game marathon against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Denver has more rest, and has home-court advantage, so Spoelstra will need his reserves to take up major minutes.

“They always do exactly what you ask them to do, which is why you want to play with guys like that, which is why they’re the reason we win so many games,” Heat guard Jimmy Butler said of Miami’s bench. “I don’t call them role players; I call them teammates.”

Malone, however, will be focused on Butler.

“When I look at Jimmy Butler, what separates him from most players is the drive — the competitive spirit within him, a relentless attack,” the coach said.

But the bench has helped spell Butler, as well. Spoelstra’s reserves are averaging 34.8 points per game, while the Nuggets are only receiving 19.5 from their bench.

That said, the Nuggets have had the upper hand with scoring, averaging 116.4 points per game, opposed to the Heat’s 111.7 clip. The Heat, however, have the slight advantage from behind the arc, as they average 39% from 3-point land, while the Nuggets sit at 38%. 

Of course, having a former NBA MVP on your side often makes up for any numbers discrepancies. And Denver boasts Nikola Jokic, a two-time winner of the league’s top player award, who has five All-Star appearances and accolades galore. He will be the Heat’s prime focus.

“We have some incredible competitors in that locker room,” Spoelstra said, looking ahead to Denver after the Game 7 win in Boston on Monday. “They love the challenge. They love putting themselves out there in front of everybody. Open to criticism. Open to everything. But to compete for it, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

A championship would mean the Heat became just the second team in NBA history to win without having home-court advantage in any one series. That feat would be matched only by the 1995 Houston Rockets, a club with two Basketball Hall of Famers on the roster, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Pablo Hernandez was born in Cuba and raised in Miami, Florida. He has a huge love for sports and aspires to be a sports analyst on television in the future.