September 21, 2023

Nuggets-Heat’s NBA Finals matchup shows why the regular season – all 82 games – still matters

That sound of silence marks the first day in some time when the NBA didn’t have a high-stakes competition on the horizon, a much-needed breather before the Finals kicks off in two days.

It wasn’t just the unpredictable NBA playoffs that took center stage in the sport over the past month; they’ve been games with implications since February’s All-Star Game.

The race to close out the regular season, with the play-in tournament being so prominent in team planning and execution this postseason, should put an end to all the nonsense surrounding the criticism of the schedule of 82 games.

The Miami Heat certainly tinkered with lineups and rotations, and battled through key player injuries throughout the season and in the playoffs, but to believe they’re mocking the regular season seems a bit ambitious.

Their playoff run has been one for the ages so far; not just an eighth seed battling to get out of the play-in after a loss to Atlanta, but beating arguably the top two teams in the league heading into June. Aside from the 1995 Houston Rockets, a sixth seed on their way to a replay, you’d be hard pressed to find a tougher path.

Those Rockets defeated a Utah team by 60 wins in the five-game first round, recovered from a 3-1 deficit to beat Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns by 59 wins in the semifinals before becoming the team with the best record of all time. the league, the 62-win San Antonio Spurs in the Western Final.

For the Heat, they wouldn’t evade anyone in the playoffs, but anyone in their right mind wouldn’t sign up for Milwaukee and Boston without home field advantage if they had the choice.

While the results were shocking across the board, almost taking the proceedings to an NCAA tournament nature, it would be prudent not to diminish the value of the regular season.

For years after the playoff expansion in 1984, the call was for few upsets, and when the first round grew to seven games in 2003, that felt even less likely.

But this season, two play-in teams that had just enough championship power found themselves in the Final Four: the Heat and Los Angeles Lakers.

And the team that some would say treated the regular season as an unnecessary exercise found itself unable to make championship magic a few weeks ago, the Golden State Warriors.

It’s not to say that if they had a few breaks they could have come face to face with Denver, but that machine looks like a juggernaut.

And the Nuggets are here largely because they treated the regular season with the respect it deserved. Yes, they fell. Yes, there were hitches with their team defense to start the season and there were questions about the long-term plan with Jamal Murray’s return from injury, but there was actually a plan. And they knew that the habits learned in October through April would manifest in sweat equality by May.

The Nuggets have been the only team to seemingly not take a night off in the playoffs, and that stems from their regular season approach.

The Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr.  at the Western Conference Finals in Los Angeles on May 22, 2023. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. of the Denver Nuggets won the Western Conference Finals in Los Angeles on May 22, 2023. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

The critics who didn’t believe they could save the treacherous West have since had to eat their words, as have those who derisively mock “Heat Culture.” Miami was not the best seed like last year, but there was an appropriate approach.

The competition cannot be all things to all people, so those who want to invalidate these results will do just that.

If you ran a simulation of these playoffs one more time, would these two teams still be standing? It’s hard to say, although Denver inspires more confidence.

But with the recent coaching changes in a year when many thought things would be quiet, this speaks to higher expectations from front offices who watched the regular season play out and believed their team had a strong chance of hoisting the Larry O’. Brien Trophy.

Usually there are less than a handful of teams with realistic champagne dreams, while a dozen others are deluding themselves.

This season you had the feeling that no less than eight teams could get this far.

That, my friends, is called parity – an elusive quality that the NBA says it wants, but we’re not sure we believe it simply because the league doesn’t know how the public will react to it.

The NFL’s gift makes so many teams feel like they’re a critical part of the Super Bowl process, making each week feel so monumental in the 17-game race.

The Miami Heat pose with the Bob Cousy Trophy after defeating the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals on May 29, 2023 in Boston.  (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
The Miami Heat pose with the Bob Cousy Trophy after beating the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday in Boston. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

The NBA is a little different. It’s a marathon of attrition with a few mirages along the way. Could the league do without a hoky midseason tournament? Sure, but there were many who turned their noses up at a play-in tournament – something that was implemented as a money grab and a way to discourage tanking.

Well, Adam Silver can put on a leather bomber and stand on an aircraft carrier with a thumbs up to say “mission accomplished”.

There were some dull nights early in the season, but that’s ingrained in a seven-month grind. However, the sprint to position in the playoffs after the All-Star break was a great mouthwash after the horrific midseason exhibition in Salt Lake City.

Rarely was there a night without playoff implications as some teams shunned the chance to get better chances for a once-in-a-lifetime prospect to actually show their fans who invest year after year that they care about them to give.

Or at least the appearance of it, right?

No matter how this all ends, the connective tissue or even the scar tissue of these two proud franchises will weave a story worth telling. One that realistically started in September and worked its way through winter and spring bef
ore peaking on the eve of summer.

That’s a story the NBA can sell and embrace.

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