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 at Denver 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 wild card 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.
- Miami is holding opponents to 38.4% shooting from the field in the fourth quarter in these playoffs, the best defensive mark by any team in any quarter this postseason. Denver is shooting 51.8% from the field in the final frame during the playoffs this season, the highest mark among all teams.
- Caleb Martin is averaging 23.0 points and 11.0 rebounds per game in his three career playoff starts, having made at least four threes in each game. He joins Stephen Curry and Anthony Edwards as the only players in NBA history to make four or more threes in their first three career playoff starts.
- For the second straight postseason, Jimmy Butler is averaging at least 27.0 points per game and 2.00 steals per game. Since steals became an official statistic in 1973-74, only Michael Jordan (five straight from 1989-93) has also reached those marks in back-to-back postseasons (min. 15 games played).
- Coaching in his 15th season, Erik Spoelstra’s Game 7 win over Boston moved him into a tie with Gregg Popovich for the third-most playoff wins in any NBA coach’s first 15 seasons with 108. Only Phil Jackson (178) and Pat Riley (145) remain ahead of him.
- The Nuggets enter Game 1 with a seven-day rest advantage over the Heat. Teams with a rest advantage of at least a week over their opponent are 4-1 (.800) all-time in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, with the lone loss being the Lakers’ overtime loss to the 76ers in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals.
- Entering this year, the Nuggets had made the playoffs 28 times since joining the NBA and had failed to reach the NBA Finals in all 28. That was the most consecutive playoff appearances without reaching the championship round by any MLB/NBA/NFL/NHL franchise to begin its history.
- Denver swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, its first-ever playoff sweep in franchise history. The Nuggets have won six straight entering Game 1, their longest winning streak in a single playoff run.
- The Nuggets have won Game 1 of all three of their series, winning by an average of 17.7 points. They are looking to become the 22nd team to win four Game 1s in a single postseason with those teams going 15-6 (.714) in the NBA Finals.
- Nikola Jokic is averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists this postseason while Jamal Murray is averaging 27.7/5.5/6.1. They would be the first teammates in NBA history to each average 25/5/5 in a single playoff run.
- Nikola Jokic has eight triple-doubles in these playoffs, the most in a single postseason in NBA history. He is on pace to become the fourth player to average a triple-double in the playoffs, joining Oscar Robertson (1962), Jason Kidd (2007) and Russell Westbrook (2017 & 2021). None of the other three made it past the second round of the playoffs.