Lowe: The superstars, matchups and schemes that will determine the 2023 NBA champion

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The last two conquests of the Los Angeles Lakers' bubble championship meet three years later in an NBA Finals that feels both fitting and half unexpected -- the Miami Heat half.

This is the culmination of a five-year arc for the Denver Nuggets -- what appeared before Jamal Murray tore an ACL in April 2021 to be the classic NBA slow burn to ultimate triumph: progressive advances leading into gut-punch defeats until the young team is ready. Murray's absence interrupted that journey, but the Nuggets used that time to prepare for his return.

With Murray gone, Nikola Jokic scored more -- and realized he could do so without losing his innate basketball identity as one of the greatest playmakers ever. Michael Porter Jr. found his footing. Michael Malone continued to grow. The front office tweaked around the core, eyeing two-way players who feed off Jokic's preternatural passing and unlock defensive versatility. Provided good health, this was their window.

Even as Jimmy Butler, then just 30 and in his first season with Miami, helped the Heat push the Lakers to six games in those 2020 Finals, league insiders felt pangs of anxiety: Could this last? Six players remain from that Miami team: Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent and Udonis Haslem. Vincent played 15 seconds in the 2020 playoffs. Haslem played none. Robinson was an undrafted sharpshooter with defensive limitations. Was bubble Herro real? Could Butler's body hold up?

It was always someone else's time. The Milwaukee Bucks entered the bubble in 2020 as the No. 1 seed, ready to avenge postseason demons; the Heat vanquished them in five games. The Bucks won the title the next year, sweeping the Heat along the way, and seemed primed to rule the East. Miami has outlasted them in two straight postseasons, humiliating them into turmoil in this season's first round.

Then, it was the Boston Celtics' time -- and they came within two games last season of their first title since 2008. The underdog Heat were one shot from beating those Celtics in the 2022 conference finals, and blew them out in Game 7 in Boston in the same round this time.

At some point, surely, it would be the Philadelphia 76ers' time. Coaches, general managers and rosters around Joel Embiid changed, but the Sixers have not won multiple postseason rounds since 2001. Miami laughed them out of the playoffs last season.

In four seasons with Butler, the Heat have made two Finals and three conference finals. The only thing missing is the biggest thing of all. Those would-be usurpers have all wobbled and quaked in hothouse moments. The Heat do not wobble. They evince no fear, no doubt, no uncertainty. They must feel those things, but it does not infect their performance. They just keep playing -- keep cutting, screening, passing, defending. Some teams and players feel the need to change to meet the moment -- to become an ideal they have created in their heads. The Heat delve further into who they are.

Miami is the superior defensive team, though Denver has matched it in the playoffs. The Heat's improvement on offense -- and their scorching 3-point shooting -- has driven this run, but Denver's offense is the most potent of the four units in this series. The Nuggets ranked fifth in points per possession in the regular season and have soared to No. 1 by a mile in the playoffs.

Jokic has cemented himself as the game's best offensive player -- a methodical whir of pivots, fakes, spins and no-look passes with no weaknesses. He might be both the league's best passer and low-post scorer. He has hit 55% or better on midrange shots for three straight seasons. He is shooting 47% on 3s in the playoffs. If there is any answer for him, no one has found it. The Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll, all staccato dribbles and slipper-soft footwork, is an unswitchable points machine.

In bad news for the Heat, zone defense to date has not been a workable answer. The Nuggets poured in 1.21 points per possession against zones this season -- No. 2 overall, per Second Spectrum. That bumped up to almost 1.3 points with Jokic on the floor. Jokic with three shooters orbiting him and Aaron Gordon lurking for lobs is an almost annoyingly perfect zone-busting alignment.

The Heat, zone masters, will try it; there is not much evidence it will work, but there was not much evidence Miami had a Finals run in it. The Heat sneer at your dossier about their qualifications; Butler might crumple it up and eat it. Maybe the Heat can sprinkle in the zone two and three possessions at a time so the Nuggets never build rhythm. If any team and coaching staff can pull that off, it's this bunch.

Jokic has done well in the post against Adebayo. He is too big and strong, comfortable backing Adebayo down from the block and the foul line: