NBA Finals

Heat’s Jimmy Butler, Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic headline start of NBA Finals

Reuters

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Heat’s Jimmy Butler, Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic headline start of NBA Finals

HOTSHOTS. Nuggets' Nikola Jokic (left) and Heat's Jimmy Butler celebrate winning the NBA Conference Finals MVP.

REUTERS

Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic and Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler take the spotlight in the NBA Finals after playing at the top of their game all throughout the playoffs

While “Dynamic Duos” and “Big 3s” have defined recent champions, the 2023 NBA Finals are set up not only to be a crowning achievement for one team, but a showdown between two of the top individual performers in the playoffs.

The Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat will meet in Game 1 on Thursday, June 1 at Denver (Friday, June 2, Manila time), backed by a pair of stars with accomplished careers and playing at the top of their games.

The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic did not win the NBA MVP award this season after holding the honor for the previous two campaigns. Instead, he is poised for the ultimate team honor with a statistically dominating run in the postseason.

The Heat’s Jimmy Butler has never won an MVP award but has shown at various points in his career that he has the kind of dogged determination that can carry a team through the most rugged of stretches.

While the individual accomplishments of Jokic and Butler will be a focus, they will be key for both teams in order to win a title.

“In some ways, it’s a mirror image series, not in terms of style, but teams that probably have been overlooked, underestimated, built a chip on their shoulder over that,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s lined up to be a great competition.”

It will be the No. 1 seed from the Western Conference in the Nuggets against the No. 8 seed from the Eastern Conference in the Heat. Miami is just the second No. 8 seed to reach the NBA Finals after the New York Knicks in 1999.

“You get to the NBA Finals, it’s not about seeding anymore, and for those who are thinking that this is going to be an easy series, I don’t even know what to say,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “This is going to be the biggest challenge of our lives. This is the NBA Finals.”

Making it viable for Denver is the presence of Jokic, who appears sufficiently motivated after losing out on the MVP award to the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid. Jokic has averaged a triple-double in 15 playoff games: 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, 10.3 assists.

He will get sufficient help from Jamal Murray (27.7 points per game), Michael Porter Jr. (averaging 14.6 points, 8.0 rebounds) and Aaron Gordon (13.0 ppg).

“I think the way we play, everybody can step up and everybody could be a best payer for a game or for a week,” Jokic said, sounding uncomfortable with the top-player label. “The ball is in my hands a lot so I make a lot of decisions, but I don’t know if I can be the best player.”

Butler has found a different gear in this run, with an ideal blend of dirty work and glamour play that has led to averages of 28.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.7 assists in the playoffs. That is up from regular-season averages of 22.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 5.3 assists.

Bam Adebayo has averaged 16.8 points with 9.2 rebounds in the playoffs. The Heat roster also includes seven undrafted players, led by Caleb Martin (14.1 ppg in playoffs) and Gabe Vincent (13.1 points), who scored 29 in a Game 3 victory over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.

“We love being around each other; we want to see each other succeed,” Butler said. “We really do enjoy when each other play well, and we’re going to continue to do that, never going to get rattled, and we’re going to see where we end up.”

The series wildcard may be injured Miami guard Tyler Herro, the team’s third-leading scorer (20.1 ppg) in the regular season. The 23-year-old sharpshooter has been out since suffering a broken right hand in the opening game of the Heat’s first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks.

On Wednesday, Spoelstra ruled Herro out for Game 1 but added that he is closer to returning.

The Nuggets are playing in the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history and are playing for a championship for the first time since losing in the 1976 ABA Finals.

The Heat are in the Finals for the first time since losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020. Butler put on a similar performance in those playoffs that led to Miami’s sixth all-time Finals appearance. The Heat have three titles, the most recent in 2013 led by LeBron James. – Rappler.com

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