Good morning, I’m Dan Gartland. I’m picking the Nuggets to win the NBA Finals in five games.
In today’s SI:AM:
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Will Miami be able to slow Jokić at all?
This year’s NBA Finals, which begin tonight (8:30 p.m. ET on ABC), features one of the most unlikely matchups in recent memory as the Nuggets, owners of the best regular-season record in the Western Conference, face a Heat team that narrowly escaped the play-in tournament before embarking on a stunning postseason run.
Denver should win this series—rather handily, you might say. It won 53 games in the regular season behind an MVP-caliber season from a player (Nikola Jokić) who has been even better in the playoffs. But if there’s anything the Heat have proved over the last month and a half, it’s that they’re greater than the sum of their parts and shouldn’t be taken lightly. They’re playing their best basketball of the season at the right time, but do they have what it takes to pull off another shocking upset?
It all starts with trying to find a way to neutralize Jokić. No one has been able to do that thus far this postseason. In 15 playoff games, he’s averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and an NBA-best 10.3 assists per game. Jokić’s ability to make opponents pay as both a scorer and a passer makes him a nightmare to defend.
In this series, that responsibility will likely fall to Bam Adebayo. Adebayo is a strong defender (he was named second-team All-Defense for the fourth time this year), but Jokić has cooked him in their previous matchups. Listed at 6'9", 255 pounds, Adebayo is substantially smaller than Jokić (6'11", 284). In their most recent meeting, a 112–108 Denver win in Miami on Feb. 13, Jokić had 27 points on 12-of-14 shooting with 12 rebounds and eight assists. (Adebayo had 19 points on 6-of-14 shooting and only two rebounds.) When guarded by Adebayo one-on-one in that game, Jokić went 5-for-5 from the floor, using a wide variety of offensive maneuvers to his advantage. (Check out a supercut of those matchups here.)
If the Celtics had advanced, they would have had the ability to ask either Al Horford or Robert Williams III to be Jokić’s primary defender. But for the undersized Heat, Adebayo is really the only guy capable of the job. Cody Zeller might get a few minutes here and there, but he didn’t even play in Game 7 against Boston after he was a disastrous minus-7 in two minutes of action in Game 6. Kevin Love has also fallen out of the rotation. Of the eight players who saw non-garbage-time minutes for Miami in Game 7, only Adebayo is taller than 6'7".
Chris Mannix asked one veteran NBA coach how they expect the Heat will try to defend Jokić:
I think they’re going to apply ball pressure more with them than the other teams have. They’re going to put their bodies on him in ways that other teams have not. It won’t be the same game plan, but look at how they played Joel Embiid last year. Embiid had to constantly move through bodies to get to where he wanted to go. Jokić is going to have to do the same thing. They are not just going to run freely and let him go where he wants.
So here’s the big problem for the Heat: If they aren’t able to guard Jokić one-on-one, which is highly unlikely, other defenders are going to have to gravitate toward him to help Adebayo. That’ll leave one of Denver’s excellent perimeter shooters (Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or the not-quite-excellent but more than capable Aaron Gordon) open on the outside for Jokić to find with one of his otherworldly passes.
The series will be an uphill battle for the Heat, but so have the previous three. Jimmy Butler thrives in situations like this, and Miami could get a big boost later in the series with the return of Tyler Herro. Herro broke his hand in the first half of the first game of the Heat’s first-round series against the Bucks but was cleared to resume basketball activities last week. While he won’t play in Game 1 tonight, he’s reportedly hoping to return to the court for Game 3. Will it be enough to give the Heat a chance?
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The top five...
… things I saw yesterday:
4. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. tossing his whole glove to first base after the ball got stuck in the webbing.
2. Devin Williams’s quick reaction on a comebacker to record the final out of the Brewers’ win over the Blue Jays.
1. Diamondbacks prospect Ali Sánchez’s smart play to start a double play on a popped bunt.
Which of the following acts did minor league manager Phillip Wellman not perform when he was famously ejected from a game on this day in 2007?Cover the plate with dirtToss the rosin bag like a grenadeCarry second and third base off the field with himPantomime a home run swing and run around the bases
Yesterday’s SIQ: On May 31, 1996, which slugger earned a two-game suspension by leveling Brewers second baseman Fernando Viña with a vicious forearm shiver in an effort to break up a double play?Albert BelleJeromy BurnitzJose CansecoFrank Thomas
Answer: Albert Belle. Of course it was the notoriously ill-tempered Belle. “He Thrives on Anger” was the headline on Michael Bamberger’s Sports Illustrated profile of Belle that ran just weeks before the incident with Viña.
The play in question occurred in the top of the eighth inning, with Cleveland leading Milwaukee, 9–3. Belle got on base after being hit by a pitch (on a full count, so it probably wasn’t intentional) and when Eddie Murray hit a tailor-made double play ball to Viña, Belle (6'2", 225 pounds) forcefully knocked Viña (5'9", 170 pounds) to the ground as he attempted to apply a tag to start a double play. (Here’s a video of the play.)
Belle came to the plate again in the ninth, and Brewers reliever Terry Burrows buzzed him with three inside pitches before finally hitting him in the shoulder. Before taking his position in the outfield at the start of the bottom of the ninth, Belle spoke with Cleveland pitcher Julián Tavárez, according to the Associated Press. Tavárez’s first pitch to leadoff batter Mike Matheny nearly hit him, and Matheny charged the mound, sparking a benches-clearing brawl that saw Tavárez throw an umpire to the ground.
Belle was initially suspended five games for the hit of Viña, but the ban was later reduced to two games after a closer look at the video showed that he did not strike Viña in the face.