2023 NBA Finals Preview: A battle of superstars with mediocre athleticism and elite determination

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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, looks to pass the ball as Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler defends in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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The Showdown

The Denver Nuggets and the Miami Heat have catapulted themselves to the NBA Finals platform following notably divergent paths through the 2023 season. Denver has consistently been a threat for the championship, barging into the playoffs as the number one seed in the Western Conference, and is currently the strong favorite to emerge victorious with odds at -425 (DraftKings Sportsbook).

Conversely, the Miami Heat had an underwhelming regular season and only managed to secure a playoff spot through the recently implemented play-in-game format. Despite starting the playoffs as the lowest-ranking team in the Eastern Conference, Miami has shocked its opponents much to the delight of Heat Nation. Let’s not forget, before the Eastern Conference Finals began, ESPN analytics gave Miami a 3% chance of knocking off the Celtics.

The Titans

The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic and the Heat’s Jimmy Butler both occupy a unique space in the NBA universe. They are perhaps the two superstars with the least amount of athleticism, yet through what appears to be sheer force of will they both have punched their tickets to the NBA Finals.

In many ways, they represent the epitome of the hard-hat wearing, lunch box toting “working man’s” kind of NBA player — a breed many older fans wistfully consider endangered in today’s league. Despite their shortcomings athletically, their drive and work ethic have propelled them into marquee players. So, while it may not be the classic Lakers-Celtics matchup many fans were clamoring for, it is a spectacle to behold and admire.

The “Joker”

Nikola “the Joker” Jokic, the Serbian-born sensation standing at 6’ 11’ and weighing 284 lbs, possesses an unprecedented skill set in the NBA. He can dominate in the paint like your typical big man but can also step out and knock down a three, dribble with ease, and thread the needle with a behind-the-back no-look pass to a cutting guard. Denver’s entire offensive strategy is essentially built around Jokic.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) collides with Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) in the second half of Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Final series Monday, May 22, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Jokic’s 2023 postseason averages include 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 10.3 assists per game, while shooting 53.8% from the field and 47.4% from beyond the arc. He has achieved a record eight triple-doubles in this year’s playoffs. That’s eight triple-doubles in the first three rounds of the playoffs, enough to knock off Wilt Chamberlain for the most in a single playoffs and there’s still one round left to go.

“Playoff Jimmy”

Not far behind Jokic’s pace statistically, Jimmy Butler has averaged 28.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game in this year’s playoffs. With a supporting cast that lacks the offensive firepower of the Nuggets, one could argue that Butler has faced the greater challenge.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) goes up for a shot against Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) and guard Derrick White (9) during the first half of Game 6 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals, Saturday, May 27, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

With a staggering nine undrafted players on the roster, the Heat are truly the underdogs America loves to root for. The highest drafted player on the roster is Cody Zeller — yes, the guy who clocks in for a mere 9.2 minutes per game donning a clear face mask. He’s currently averaging 2.6 points per game. Let that marinate for a moment.

Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams (12) aims to score as Miami Heat center Cody Zeller (44) defends during the first half of Game 3 of the NBA basketball playoffs Eastern Conference finals, Sunday, May 21, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Series Forecast

On paper, the Denver Nuggets are a clear favorite. They’ve outperformed all season, possess a more talented roster, and defeated the Heat in both their regular-season encounters. But if the 2023 NBA playoffs have taught us anything, it’s that this is the year of grit and determination overcoming raw talent.

A pivotal element will be whether Tyler Herro can make a comeback after a broken hand benched him in the first round. He’s reportedly eyeing a game 3 return, which could inject some desperately needed scoring prowess for Miami.

Another key will be the coaching matchup: Miami’s Erik Spoelstra vs. Denver’s Michael Malone. Both are seasoned veterans of the NBA’s coaching fraternity, but Spoelstra’s ability to get the most out of his roster and develop undrafted players into rotation pieces is outmatched.

Herro’s return, along with Miami’s celebrated “Heat Culture” and head coach Erik Spoelstra’s mastery of game planning and adjustments, are enough to overcome the dominance of Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.

Prediction: Heat in 7.


Where to watch

The 2023 NBA Finals will kick off on Thursday, June 1, at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

Jokic & Butler postseason highlights

  1. Butler’s transformation into ‘Jimmy Freakin’ Butler’ during the Heat’s game 1 victory over the Boston Celtics
  1. Jokic’s two unreal step back 3’s against the Lakers
  1. Jimmy eerily predicting the Heat would the Heat would overcome their game 7 loss to Boston in the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals
  1. Jokic’s two (huge) brothers picking up head coach Michael Malone after their conference finals victory over the Lakers
  1. Jokic gets into it with Phoenix Suns owner Mat Ishbia and then keeps it classy and shows love to Ishbia the next game
  1. Jimmy drops 56 in Game 4 against the top-seed Milwaukee Bucks
  1. Joker drops 53 in Game 4 against the Phoenix Suns
  1. Jimmy Buckets says “no” to holding ECF trophy, says he’ll “hold the next one”
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