|place: Ball Arena, Denver date: Thursday, June 1 Begins: 18:30 (01:30 GMT, Friday)|
|BBC coverage: Watch live On BBC One, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport.|
“This will be the biggest challenge of our lives. This is the NBA Finals.”
Coach Michael Malone isn’t taking anything for granted as his Denver Nuggets team aims to beat the Miami Heat for their first NBA title.
The top seed in the Western Conference, Denver is the heavy favorite having cruised through the playoffs to reach the Finals for the first time in their 56-year history.
Meanwhile, Miami’s playoff campaign was about to end before it even began, as the three-time league champions lost their first game in the tournament.
They survived, and two months later, the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference also has a chance to make history after an impressive run through the playoffs.
The NBA Finals are set for June 1-18, with the first game taking place in Denver, live on BBC One.
But who are the main men and why does tennis superstar Coco Gauff hope her best-of-seven series will go the distance?
MVP Jokic twice “ignites” the opposition
Denver selected Serbian Nikola Jokic 41st overall in the 2014 draft. Since then, the Nuggets have evolved into championship contenders, with Jokic becoming the face of the franchise.
A dominant center at 6ft 11in, the 28-year-old was named Most Valuable Player in the NBA in 2021 and 2022, Coach Malone says Jokic is happier creating for his teammates than scoring himself.
“He’s literally a magician on the field,” Denver forward Zeke Njie 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 the stronger, more athletic guys, and he definitely sets them on fire.
“He has incredible patience so no one can rush him,” added Njie. “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 just pass it to you right where you want it, so it’s really incredible to watch.”
Denver has a 12-3 record in playoff games this year and has won both games with Miami in the regular season. Jokic averaged triple-doubles in all of those games.
How did you stop Jokic?
Miami is expected to task opposing big man Bam Adebayo with containing Jokic, but the Serb said: “It’s not Bam against me or anyone against anyone. It’s Denver against Miami.”
“We’re all involved, we love to play basketball with the team. I think that’s why it’s going to be interesting.”
“I don’t think there is any version of a ‘stopper’ in this league,” said long-serving Miami coach Eric Spoelstra.
“We have to make things difficult, get him out of his comfort zone, and figure out a way to get the job done regardless.”
Asked about the key to slowing Gokic down, Miami star Jimmy Butler replied: “We guard him as a team with all five players.
“We have to be in the gaps, for the bands to rebound. We can’t have defensive gaps, we have to block them.”
Is “Playoff Jimmy” real?
Like Jokic, Jimmy Butler entered the NBA as an undrafted draft after being selected 30th overall by the Chicago Bulls in 2011.
While his talent was evident, there were question marks over his leadership style and he was taken on by three teams in quick succession.
But with Miami, the small forward became known as “Jimmy” because of his penchant for upping his game in the postseason.
He was asked about his title after Recording a team record 56 points In the first round of qualifying this year, he said, “It’s nothing.”
Statistics indicate otherwise. In four years with Miami, he led the Heat to the Finals twice, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020, And in three of those seasons, his average points per game was higher than in the postseason.
Described as a “warrior” by Denver coach Michael Malone, the 33-year-old was named the Eastern Conference Finals Most Valuable Player after scoring 28 points as the MVP. The Heat stopped the Boston Celtics to win the series 4-3.
At the start of the playoffs, Miami’s odds of winning the NBA title were 150-1 – the longest of any team to reach the Finals since the NBA merged with the NBA in 1976.
Led by Butler, the Heat became the first play-by-play team to reach the Finals and the second eighth seed to reach this stage—after the 1999 New York Knicks, who lost to the San Antonio Spurs.
Unbelieving players prove the doubters wrong
Jokic and Butler bring the best of the ‘role-players’ supporting cast.
Caleb Martin was the most impressive for Miami, leading a bunch of underdogs including Gabe Vincent, Max Stross and Duncan Robinson.
Seven FA players have played for the Heat in playoff games and 52% of their points against Boston were scored by FA players—both numbers representing the highest percentage for a team in the Finals since 1966.
The Heat are just the third team to reach the Finals in 35 seasons despite being an underdog in each of their first three playoff games, after the 1999 Knicks and 1995 Houston Rockets, who upset the Orlando Magic.
“She’s poised to be a great competitor,” 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 stylistically, but with ensembles that might have been overlooked and underestimated, making a chip on their shoulders on top of that.”
Goff receives Butler’s invitation
Tennis star Coco Gauff, who lives in Florida, also revealed the belief that propelled Miami to the playoffs.
Then First round victory at the French Open The 19-year-old said Tuesday that Butler had offered her playoff tickets but she was in Europe for the clay court season.
Butler replied, “Well, when we make the finals, let me know if your family wants some tickets.”
whenno if. The Heat is in now, of course, and even if Gauff makes it to the Paris final, she can return for Game 6 in Miami.