The Miami Heat eventually won the Eastern Conference with a Game 7 victory over the Boston Celtics on Monday, but after taking a 3-0 lead in the series, what they lost was the chance to put their feet up for an extended rest heading into the Finals.
Had the Heat closed Boston out in four, they would've had eight days off before Game 1 of the Finals, which begin Thursday. Had they won in five, that would've been six days' rest. Win in six, four days' rest. Instead, Miami gets just two days of turnaround time before facing a Nuggets team that will have had nine days off when Game 1 rolls around Thursday, to say nothing of the mile-high altitude.
Beggars can't be choosers. You make the Finals as an eighth seed, you take it how you can get it. But the Heat surely would've preferred some down time before tying to continue what has been a remarkable run through Game 1s so far this postseason. In each of its three series, Miami has won Game 1 on the road -- first against Milwaukee, then New York in the second and in Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals.
People love to say that a series doesn't start until the road team wins, but that's simply not true. One could argue, in fact, that most series are over after Game 1. Over the entire course of NBA playoff history, Game 1 winners go on to win the series 75 percent of the time (453-149). So far this postseason, 11 of 14 Game 1 winners have gone on to win the series. It's a huge game.
It's easy to think the Heat won't have the legs, particularly at north of 5,000 feet, to keep up with the rested, acclimated Nuggets for 48 minutes. Nothing new there. Basically nobody has given this team a real chance at any point in the playoffs. ESPN analytics famously gave them a 3% chance of getting to the Finals. They are 8.5-point underdogs in Game 1 to Denver, per Caesars Sportsbook.
When are we going to stop doing this? What evidence is there that Miami is going to wimp out in this game and get taken to the cleaners? They are famously conditioned. The Culture insists upon it. That said, every man, every team, has a breaking point. That was a brutal seven-game series against Boston.
If I had to guess, Miami will be trying to pressure Jamal Murray full court. They'll be scrambling hard to Denver's bevy of shooters when and if they are forced to double-team Nikola Jokic. Everyone's legs go eventually, and if that happens in Game 1, can Miami, the league's fourth-worst 3-point shooting team during the regular season, keep up its red-hot shooting?
Chances are, they'll need to. The Nuggets, who are undefeated at home in these playoffs, have advantages all over. Jokic is 10-2 against Bam Adebayo in his career. The only series during this run in which Miami, in most people's estimation, wasn't on the wrong end of the talent ledger was against the Knicks, against whom they only shot 30% from 3. When they have needed to make up for a talent gap, they shot 45% against the Bucks and 43% against the Celtics.
It might feel unrealistic that Caleb Martin will continue to shoot 49% on over six 3s per game, or that Gabe Vincent will shoot 51% on over four 3s per, as they did respectively against Boston, but they may need to land somewhere close to that if Miami is going to pull this off. At the end of the day, that kind of peripheral shooting is the reason the Heat beat Boston.
Game 1 won't tell us everything, but it will tell us a lot. It always does. Let's see if Miami has four more big shooting nights left. I don't think it's going to happen. I think the Nuggets win in six. But you won't find me saying it's impossible.
I was done doubting the Heat a long time ago. Ito be wary of them in Game 7 against Boston, even as the odds were stacked heavily in Boston's favor, and I'm warning you to be wary of them again in Game 1 against Denver despite, yet again, being a big underdog. If the Heat can get their fourth straight Game 1 in these playoffs, they'll be well on their way to winning what would be one of the most unlikely championships in NBA history.