The NBA Finals are here, and they cap a playoffs that has been full of surprises with a matchup that not many saw coming: the No. 1 seed Nuggets and the No. 8 seed Heat.
In these playoffs, two-time MVP Nikola Jokic has "introduced" himself to a large chunk of the basketball world as arguably the best player in the NBA right now. Jimmy Butler was dubbed "Himmy Butler" by Joel Embiid for his postseason exploits, and he has his Heat back in the Finals for the second time in four seasons.
The Nuggets are heavy favorites to win the championship, but let's dig a little deeper to find some other angles to work on the betting front.
All odds courtesy Caesars Sportsbook.
Best bets: Miami Heat +2.5 games (-135)
The Heat have been overwhelming underdogs in two of the three playoffs rounds so far, first against the top-seeded Bucks in the first round and then lately against the second seeded Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. As Nuggets coach Michael Malone pointed out, it's time to stop looking at their No. 8 seed and regular season performance and start paying attention to what they've been in the playoffs.
In addition to the narratives about Heat Culture and will to win, the Heat changed their game on the court in a vital, fundamental way during the postseason: They went from one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the league in the regular season to the best 3-point shooting team in the playoffs. They surround Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo with an array of long-range snipers that are knocking down their shots at volume with accuracy. That keeps them in games that otherwise might get away from them, and has helped them overcome talent disadvantages for the last six weeks.
The Nuggets have been bar-none the best team in the playoffs thus far, with Jokic's amazing level complemented by Jamal Murray doing a Stephen Curry impersonation. In the Western Conference Finals, Jokic (27.8 PPG, 14.5 RPG, 11.8 APG) and Murray (32.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 5.3 APG) became only the fourth pair of teammates in NBA history where one averaged a triple-double and the other over 30 points for an entire series. The first duo to do it was Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980 NBA Finals. That's the level that Jokic and Murray are playing on. And that makes the Nuggets an incredibly difficult team to beat.
The bottom line is that, while I expect the Nuggets to win the series if they keep playing as they have been, the Heat's defense, aggression and 3-point shooting (in addition to, yes, the Heat Culture) have the ability to make this series awkward and difficult in ways the Nuggets haven't faced yet. Because the Nuggets are such overwhelming favorites, the alternate spread of the Heat +2.5 games is close to even money. I think the Heat can win at least two games this series, so I find value in this bet.
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While Jokic is playing at Space Jam levels these days, his overwhelming game mixes a huge dose of passing and rebounding in with his scoring. Likewise, while Butler still has occasional "Himmy" days, he also has plenty of games where he acts as a facilitator to get the hot 3-point shooters on the squad looks.
As a result, I look to Murray as potential value to score the most points in this series. Murray was the leading scorer of either Conference Finals series, averaging 32.5 PPG on 52.7 FG% against the Lakers. And that series wasn't a fluke, based on Murray's history.
In his last playoffs run, in 2020, he averaged 31.6 PPG on 55.0 FG% over a seven-game series to lead the Nuggets past the Jazz. In that series, Murray had two 50-point games, a 42-point effort and a 36-point game as well. With all the attention likely focused on Jokic, Murray has a good chance to put another big number on the board in the Finals.
Jokic is the overwhelming odds-on favorite to win Finals MVP (-360), and he should be, but there is no juice there. And there are two others with a legitimate path to the Finals MVP with longer odds that could provide some value. First, Butler's FMVP odds are slightly longer than the Heat's odds to win the series (+300), but if the Heat do win it's almost guaranteed that Butler would win the award. So, I find a bit of value in Butler at +330 for FMVP, because I think the Heat have a better than 1-in-3 chance to upset the Nuggets.
I also find value in Murray at +800, because as dominant as Jokic has been, Murray is playing exceptional basketball too. He averaged 32.5 PPG in the Conference Finals, and has upside to go further. The NBA Finals MVP is all about moments and narrative, which is why there have been so many examples through the years of the FMVP going to players that aren't the best on the team. This is Jokic's team but Murray could absolutely produce some big moments in big situation which, paired with a 30-plus PPG scoring average, make him much better than an 8-to-1 prospect to win FMVP.