A Denver Nuggets squad looking to prove its championship quality and an upstart Miami Heat lineup that made defying the odds a trademark are on an NBA Finals collision course.
Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic of Serbia leads the Western Conference top seed Nuggets against sharpshooter Jimmy Butler and the Heat, who needed a play-in victory just to grab an eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
The best-of-seven championship series begins Thursday at Denver. It's the Nuggets' first trip to the NBA Finals since making their league debut in 1976.
Denver has won hard-earned respect after 46 seasons of futility, this year as a playoff top seed for the first time.
"Our goal is to win a championship, so we have much more work to do," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
"Seems like for years now, some dusty old cowtown in the Rocky Mountains, the little respect that we get. You can sit there and complain about it or you can just embrace who we are and what we have.
"Until we win a championship, people are going to keep saying that about us. So that's what drives us. Getting to the finals doesn't do it. It's winning a championship."
Jokic, a 6-foot-11 center, averaged 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and a career-high 9.8 assists a game this season and shot a career-best 63.2% from the floor.
Miami center Bam Adebayo says the key to slowing Jokic is "making him take tough shots" but added, "The biggest thing for us is try to limit his assists. Sounds easier said than done. Biggest thing for us is watching film and figuring that out."
The Nuggets have talent and depth around Jokic, led by guard Jamal Murray, who missed the entire 2021-22 season due to a torn left knee ligament. He's averaging 27.7 points in the playoffs.
"I'm so happy for Jamal. He's a special player," Jokic said. "He has been our best player since round one, really stepping up. Even if he doesn't make shots, his energy is always good. He's still fighting."
Denver forwards Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown and guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each average 10-15 points in the playoffs in supporting roles that have made the Nuggets formidable.
"When we're just playing the right way, everything opens up," Murray said. "Everybody eats when we're all playing for each other and we've been doing that for a while. We're just in a great rhythm of playing unselfish basketball."
And there's more to come.
"We've got four more wins to go," Murray said. "First Nuggets team to go all the way. We just want to make the most of the opportunity."
Heat forged into steel
To do that, the Nuggets must defeat a giant-killer Heat team that became only the second eighth seed to reach the NBA Finals after the 1999 New York Knicks.
Miami, which lost two regular-season games against Denver, lost a play-in game to Atlanta then beat Chicago to grab the last East playoff spot.
The Heat stunned NBA wins-leader Milwaukee, beat New York and edged Boston in seven games in the East final after letting the Celtics pull level from an 0-3 hole.
"We have some incredible competitors in that locker room. They love the challenge," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
"Things don't always go your way. The inevitable setbacks happen and it's how you deal with that collectively. It can sap your spirit. It can take a team down for whatever reason. With this group, it has steeled us and made us closer and made us tougher."
Butler has averaged 28.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists a game in the playoffs but "Jimmy Buckets" says he isn't finished.
"Nobody is satisfied," he said. "We haven't done anything. We don't play just to win the Eastern Conference. We play to win the whole thing."
And being a huge underdog in the finals is just how Adebayo wants it.
"When you go through what we went through this whole season, people writing us off, to be four games from a championship just speaks volume to, one, we never quit, and two, everybody rallied together," he said.
© Agence France-Presse