|Heat ready to compete again vs. Nuggets|
The venue is different, the arena is empty and instead of preparing for next season, teams are finishing up the 2019-20 campaign.
Regardless, the goal remains the same for the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets, who restart their respective campaigns against each other on Saturday afternoon at the ESPN Wide World of Sports campus near Orlando.
Both teams have eight games remaining in this run up to the postseason, where positioning means less than first-round matchups because the idea of home-court advantage is moot in the bubble.
The Heat (41-24) can climb as high as the second seed in the Eastern Conference or drop to sixth depending on how these eight games go, but the most important thing is they're playing meaningful basketball again.
"Our guys are competitors. They love this," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They're really enjoying this environment, having an opportunity to feel normal and get in between those four lines and compete. We're excited about our team. We've had three really good weeks of practice, guys are ready."
One thing Miami isn't worrying about is using the eight games to find itself in a favorable matchup. The Heat will play the games and then worry about the playoff matchup at the end, Spoelstra said.
"I don't even need to explain it, we're not going to lose games or play differently to try to line up an opponent. That's just not our language," Spoelstra said. "We're not just going to go to [Disney] and waste each other's times. We're there for a reason. Competition, like I said, brings out a different quality out of this group, individually and collectively. We'll treat those games with great respect."
The Nuggets (43-22) enter Saturday's play in third place in the Western Conference. Denver has had to gradually bring players into the fold because of the pandemic -- star Nikola Jokic was diagnosed with COVID-19 when he was home in Serbia -- and coach Michael Malone and his staff have been dealing with some nagging injuries among the players on the roster.
With a tight schedule ahead, health, as usual, will play a part in determining the title.
"Whatever team wins an NBA championship this year has to be very fortunate and lucky with the health of their roster," Malone said.
One advantage Denver has is its deep roster. Led by Jokic and guard Jamal Murray, the Nuggets had 11 players log time in 41 or more games this season. Six are averaging in double figures in scoring.
The most talked about Denver player during exhibition play in the bubble has yet to play an NBA game, however.
Bol Bol, the 7-foot-2 son of former NBA player Manute Bol, was a second-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft after playing just nine games with the University of Oregon. Left foot surgery limited his career and was a reason he dropped in the draft.
The 20-year-old showed his potential by recording 16 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks in an 89-82 win against the Washington Wizards on July 22. He also had 15 points and three rebounds in a 119-104 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans last Saturday.
He gives Denver yet another unique talent to use.
"I've been working really hard, especially since I got here in the bubble," Bol told reporters after the first exhibition game. "I was just trying not to be nervous, and then everything would just come to me."
--Field Level Media