The Nuggets-Heat NBA Finals game shows why the regular season — all 82 games — still matters

That sound of silence is the first day in some time that the NBA hasn’t had a high-stakes competition on the horizon, a much-needed expiration before the Finals begin in two days.

It’s not just the unpredictable NBA playoffs that have put the sport in the spotlight over the past month; these are games with implications since the All-Star Game in February.

The race to finish the regular season, with the play-in tournament looming so large in the team’s planning as well as the execution of this post-season, should spell the end of all the nonsense surrounding criticism. of the 82-game schedule.

The Miami Heat have certainly tinkered with rosters and rotations, and battled injuries to key players throughout the season and playoffs, but to believe that they’ve been mocked in the regular season seems a bit ambitious.

Their playoff run has been one for the ages so far; not just an eighth seed who had to fight their way out of the play-in after a loss to Atlanta, but beat arguably the top two teams in the league on their way to June. Short of the 1995 Houston Rockets, a sixth seed on the way to a repeat, it would be hard to find a tougher road.

These Rockets beat a 60-win Utah team in the first round of five games, rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to beat Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns by 59 in the semis before eliminating the team with the league’s best record, the San Antonio Spurs’ 62 wins in the Western Finals.

For the Heat, they weren’t going to dodge anyone in the playoffs, but anyone in their right mind wouldn’t sign up for Milwaukee and Boston without home-court advantage if they had the choice.

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

For years after the playoffs expanded in 1984, the call was that upsets were rare, and once the first round expanded to seven games in 2003 it seemed even less likely.

But this season, two playing teams that had just enough championship equity ended up in the Final Four — the Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers.

And the team that some would say treated the regular season like a wasteful exercise found itself unable to do championship magic a few weeks ago, the Golden State Warriors.

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

And the Nuggets are here in large part because they treated the regular season with the respect it deserved. Yes, they collapsed. Yes, there were hiccups with their team’s 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 habits learned from October to April would translate into sweat equity in May.

The Nuggets are the only team that apparently didn’t take a playoff bye, and that stems from their approach to the regular season.

The Denver Nuggets & #39;  Nikola Jokić and Michael Porter Jr. as they sweep the Western Conference Finals in Los Angeles on May 22, 2023. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Nikola Jokić and Michael Porter Jr. of the Denver Nuggets as they sweep the Western Conference Finals in Los Angeles on May 22, 2023. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Critics who didn’t believe they could cross the treacherous West have since had to swallow their words, as have those who poked fun at “Heat Culture.” Miami wasn’t the top seed like last year, but there was a proper approach.

The league can’t be everything for everyone, so those who would invalidate these results will.

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

But with recent coaching changes in a year when many thought the sidelines would be quiet, it speaks to a heightened level of expectation from the front offices that have seen the regular season play out. and thought 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 more are wrong.

This season you had the feeling that up to eight teams could make a run that far.

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

The NFL giveaway makes so many teams feel like an essential part of the Super Bowl process, which makes each week so monumental in its 17-game run.

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 defeating the Boston Celtics in Monday’s Eastern Conference Finals in Boston. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

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

Well, Adam Silver can don a leather bomber and stand on an aircraft carrier with a thumbs-up saying “mission accomplished.”

There were some lackluster nights at the start of the season, but it turned into a seven-month grind. The sprint, however, toward playoff positioning after the All-Star break was great mouthwash after the horrific midseason display in Salt Lake City.

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

Or at least the looks of it, right?

No matter how it 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 went through winter and spring before reaching its peak on the eve of summer.

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

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