It is the story of two of the most beloved players in the NBA.
There’s the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić, the burly Serbian center who has battled understatement and misinterpretation to become one of the league’s greats and a two-time MVP.
Then there’s Miami Heat Jimmy Butler, another underrated player whose determination and never-give-up attitude against all odds have earned him plaudits and fans in recent years, but particularly in these playoffs.
It’s the performances of Jokić and Butler that help explain why the NBA Finals are being contested by the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat at the conclusion of the 2022/23 NBA season.
The two teams have a lot in common; both are led by a star player with complementary collaborators around him and both have long-term head coaches at the helm: Miami’s Erik Spoelstra has the second-longest active tenure as a team’s head coach, while Denver’s Michael Malone has the room
After sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, the Nuggets have had more than a week off, while the Heat have come off a grueling seven-game series with the Boston Celtics, so fatigue could be a factor.
Whoever is left standing with the Larry O’Brien trophy aloft at the end of the Finals, whether it’s Jokić or Butler, is likely to make a great story for neutral fans as both players aim to win their first rings.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals begins Thursday, June 1 at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado, with Game 2 taking place on Sunday.
The series then travels to Miami for Games 3 and 4 before returning to Denver for Game 5 if necessary. If necessary, Game 6 will take place in Miami and Game 7 in Denver.
The NBA season finale will air on ABC in the US, while all games are available via NBA League Pass.
International viewers can watch all the action on League Pass, as well as via local broadcasters.
For the Nuggets, a run to the Finals was the only palatable early-season result after years of near misses. And as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, they have fulfilled those wishes.
Jokić has become a transformational player for Denver in recent years; but this particular season, the two-time MVP has gone from regular-season juggernaut to postseason juggernaut.
The 28-year-old has averaged a triple double of 30.4 points, 13.8 rebounds and 10.2 assists in 13 games this postseason as Denver has advanced to the playoffs.
He has fended off challenges from a long list of superstars: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker have all fallen by the wayside.
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE/Getty Images
Jokić shoots the ball during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.
It’s Jokić’s unique combination of passing, scoring and vision that has made him such a dominant force, and coupled with Jamal Murray’s scoring prowess, the Nuggets have been nearly unstoppable on offense.
Due to some smart additions in recent years, notably Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Denver’s defense has also been stifling.
Jokić admitted that the celebrations lasted shortly after the Lakers’ sweep in the Western Conference Finals, as Denver’s goal is to lift the title.
But he admits that if they are able to claim that ring, he could afford to completely absorb it all.
“I am going to have bigger emotions, yes. We won (Game 4 against the Lakers) and I was very happy, yes, yes, we made history, this, that,” Jokić told reporters. “But at the end of the day, next year, no one will remember us or two years from now.
“So maybe if we win it all, maybe it’s different, but we’ll see.”
The Nuggets have gone undefeated in home games in these playoffs, and with home field advantage in the Finals, Denver is a strong favorite to claim its first title in franchise history.
AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post/Getty Images
Jokić leaves the court after the Nuggets beat the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
While the Nuggets’ trip to the Finals wasn’t unexpected, the Heat’s streak certainly was.
Having stumbled throughout the regular season, battling constant injuries and shooting issues, Miami finally booked a spot in the Play-In tournament.
But even then they struggled, first losing to the Atlanta Hawks before overcoming a late deficit to beat the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs.
Their reward for going down the Play-In route was a matchup with the No. 1-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. Miami was given little hope, but five games later, the Heat stunned the Bucks 4-1 and advanced to the next round.
The New York Knicks were next to succumb to Butler and Co. and the Boston Celtics, despite rallying from a 3-0 deficit to force a Game 7, failed to get the better of the Heat.
Butler, 33, has been at the forefront of Miami’s extraordinary run and has not flinched under unimaginable pressure.
David Butler II/USA Today Sports/Reuters
Butler grabs a rebound off Celtics center Al Horford in the first quarter during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
This postseason, he has averaged 28.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists while leading the Heat to four wins of their first title in 10 years.
But more than that, his confidence has been praised even when the odds seem stacked against his team.
Following the Heat’s demolition of the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, having lost three straight games earlier, Butler pointed to the team spirit that has gotten them to where they are now.
“I’m not going to say that losing three in a row is part of the Heat culture that we like to talk about because we don’t play to lose and we don’t want to lose. [The Celtics] They are an incredible team there and will be for a while,” he told reporters.
“I just think the guys that Coach (Spoelstra) and Coach Pat (Riley) put together, when one guy goes down, the next guy could fill that void and do exactly what the guy that went down did and do it at a high level. level.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
Spoelstra hugs Butler after the Heat beat the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“Then be humble enough to know that when that guy comes back, you need to step back and get back into your role. Nobody ever complains. They always do exactly what you ask them to do, that’s why you want to play guys like that, that’s why they’re the reason we win so many games.
“I don’t call them role players; I call them teammates because your role can change any day, especially how many games I’ve missed, in and out of the lineup, nights off, whatever you want to call it.
“But we have some hoopers. We have some real basketball players who can score, can defend and can pass and can win games for us.”
Will it be the wily veteran or the Serbian superstar who claims his first ring? We will know soon.