NBA Finals 2023: Denver Nuggets v Miami Heat - five things to look for as history beckons

Basketball Nikola Jokic was named Most Valuable Player for the Western Conference Finals, after being the season MVP in 2021 and 2022
JUN 1, 2023 LISTEN
Nikola Jokic was named Most Valuable Player for the Western Conference Finals, after being the season MVP in 2021 and 2022

"This is going to be the biggest challenge of our lives. This is the NBA Finals."

Coach Michael Malone is taking nothing for granted as his Denver Nuggets team aim to beat the Miami Heat for their first NBA title.

Top seeds in the Western Conference, Denver are favourites having powered through the play-offs to reach the Finals for the first time in their 56-year history.

Meanwhile, Miami's play-off campaign was almost over before it began as the three-time champions lost their first game of the play-in tournament.

They survived, and two months later, the Eastern Conference's eighth seed also have a chance to create history after a remarkable run through the play-offs.

The NBA Finals are scheduled for 1-18 June, with the first game in Denver, live on BBC One.

But who are the key men and why is tennis star Coco Gauff hoping the best-of-seven series goes the distance?

  • Two-time MVP Jokic 'torches' opposition

Denver selected Serbia's Nikola Jokic 41st overall in the 2014 draft. Since then, the Nuggets have developed into championship contenders, with Jokic becoming the face of the franchise.

A dominant 6ft 11in centre, the 28-year-old was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 2021 and 2022, and coach Malone says Jokic takes more joy from creating for team-mates than scoring himself.

"He is literally a wizard on the court," Denver forward Zeke Nnaji told the BBC. "He sees everything, he has eyes in the back of his head.

"His IQ is off the charts, and it's great because he goes against guys who are stronger, more athletic, and he absolutely torches them.

"He just has incredible patience that no-one can rush him," Nnaji added. "If you try to double-team him, he knows where everyone is and makes the right pass.

"He doesn't have to look at you, he'll pass it to you right where you need it, so he is truly incredible to watch."

Denver have a 12-3 record in this year's play-offs and won both games with Miami in the regular season. Jokic has averaged a triple-double across all those games.

  • How do you stop Jokic?

Miami are expected to task rival big man Bam Adebayo with containing Jokic, but the Serb said: "It's not Bam against me or anybody against anybody. It's Denver against Miami.

"We are getting everybody involved, we like to play team basketball. I think that's why it's going to be interesting."

Long-serving Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said: "I don't think there's any version of a 'stopper' in this association.

"We have to make things tough, get him out of his comfort zone, and figure out a way to get the job done regardless."

Asked what is key to slowing down Jokic, Miami star Jimmy Butler replied: "Guarding him as a team with all five guys.

"We're going to have to be in the gaps, to gang rebound. We can't have defensive lapses, we're going to have to lock in."

  • Is 'play-off Jimmy' real?

Like Jokic, Jimmy Butler came into the NBA as an unheralded draft prospect after being selected 30th overall by the Chicago Bulls in 2011.

While his talent was clear, there were question marks over his leadership style and he was moved on by three teams in quick succession.

But with Miami the small forward has become known as 'play-off Jimmy' for his tendency to raise his game in the post-season.

Asked about his nickname after scoring a team-record 56 points in the first round of this year's play-offs, he said: "It's not a thing."

The stats suggest otherwise. In four years with Miami he has led the Heat to the Finals twice, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020, and in three of those seasons his average for points per game has been higher in the post-season.

Described as a "warrior" by Denver coach Michael Malone, the 33-year-old was named MVP for the Eastern Conference Finals after scoring a game-high 28 points as the Heat held off a Boston Celtics fightback to win the series 4-3.

At the start of the play-offs, Miami's odds to win the NBA title were 150-1 - the longest of any team to reach the Finals since the NBA merged with the ABA in 1976.

Led by Butler, the Heat have become the first play-in team to reach the Finals and just the second eighth seed to reach this stage - after the 1999 New York Knicks, who lost to the San Antonio Spurs.

  • Undrafted players proving doubters wrong

Both Jokic and Butler bring the best out of a supporting cast of 'role players'.

Caleb Martin has been the most impressive for Miami, leading a group of undrafted players including Gabe Vincent, Max Strus and Duncan Robinson.

Seven undrafted players have played for the Heat in the play-offs and 52% of their points against Boston were scored by undrafted players - both figures the highest for a Finals team since 1966.

The Heat are just the third team in 35 seasons to reach the Finals despite being underdogs in each of their first three play-off series, after the 1999 Knicks and the 1995 Houston Rockets, who upset the Orlando Magic.

"It's lined up to be a great competition," said Spoelstra, who led the Heat to their last two NBA titles in 2012 and 2013.

"In some ways, it's a mirror image series, not in terms of style, but with teams that probably have been overlooked, underestimated, and have built a chip on their shoulder over that."

  • Gauff receives Butler invite

Tennis star Coco Gauff, who lives in Florida, has also revealed the belief which has driven Miami's play-off run.

After her first-round win at the French Open on Tuesday, the 19-year-old said Butler offered her tickets for the play-offs but she was in Europe for the clay-court season.

Butler replied: "OK, when we make the finals, let me know if your family wants some tickets."

When, not if. The Heat are now there, of course, and even if Gauff makes it to the Paris final, she could make it home for game six in Miami.