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After a pair of series-ending blowouts in conference finals last night, the championship matchups in both the NBA and NHL are set. Starting Thursday, the Denver Nuggets face the Miami Heat for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. On Saturday, the Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers begin their battle for the Stanley Cup.
Since the NBA Finals are up first, let’s preview that series today and circle back to the Stanley Cup final later this week.
Here’s a look at the Heat and the Nuggets, including how a superstar’s Canadian sidekick could sway the Finals for the second straight year.
Miami: one of the unlikeliest NBA finalists ever
The Heat might seem like a team of destiny in hindsight, but they could easily have missed the playoffs entirely. After going 44-38 in the regular season, Miami lost a play-in game to the 41-41 Atlanta Hawks, sending the Heat to a do-or-die matchup vs. Chicago. They survived to grab the eighth and final seed in the main Eastern Conference bracket, but Miami was widely considered mere first-round fodder for the NBA-best Milwaukee Bucks. Prior to that series, the Heat’s odds of winning the championship were listed at about 150-1.
But, like the nearby Florida Panthers, the Heat suddenly transformed into a far better version of themselves. They shocked Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks in just five games, took out the so-so Knicks in six and raced out to a 3-0 lead on defending East champion Boston before avoiding an historic meltdown by dominating the Celtics 103-84 in Game 7 last night. Miami is just the second No. 8 seed to reach the Finals, after the Knicks in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.
The man most responsible for the Heat’s magical run is Jimmy Butler. One of the smartest, toughest and most fearless players in the NBA, the star two-way wing has once again elevated his game when the chips were down. Butler is averaging 28.5 points in the playoffs (up from fewer than 23 in the regular season), including performances of 56 and 42 in the final two games of the Milwaukee upset.
The Heat lack a true second star, and they lost their second-most dangerous scorer, guard Tyler Herro, to a broken shooting hand in Game 1 vs. Milwaukee (he hopes to return sometime in the Finals). But legendary Miami president Pat Riley has surrounded Butler with strong supporting players like centre Bam Adebayo, former Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry and the emerging Caleb Martin, who scored 26 in last night’s clincher vs. the Celtics. Erik Spoelstra, widely considered the top head coach in the NBA, knows how to get the best out of all of them.
The odds are once again stacked against the Heat, who have worse than a 1-in-4 chance of beating Denver, according to the betting markets. But Miami might not be out of surprises just yet.
Denver: a great team in disguise
Normally, a team with the best record in the Western Conference and the NBA’s best player would be an obvious pick to win the title. But, entering the playoffs, the betting markets gave five teams a better chance than the Nuggets of hoisting the Larry O.B., including two from the West in Phoenix and defending champion Golden State.
Denver has made that assessment look foolish, going a combined 12-3 in the playoffs vs. Minnesota, Phoenix and the Los Angeles Lakers, a trendy Finals pick after LeBron James and company caught fire near the end of the regular season. The Nuggets are now heavy favourites to beat the Heat in the Finals.
A big reason why people overlook Denver is that we’ve never seen a superstar quite like Nikola Jokic. The 6-foot-11, 284-pound Serb with the doughy-ish physique and no-frills buzzcut looks like a journeyman European big man. But, at heart, he’s a spiritual point guard and the best passer (of any size) in the league. That dissonance helps explain Jokic’s relatively modest profile even after winning back-to-back MVP awards. And, in fairness to the doubters, his recent playoff track record was not great. Those MVP seasons ended in a second-round sweep by Phoenix in 2021 and a five-game first-round exit at the hands of Golden State last year.
But even the greatest players need help in the playoffs, and Jokic’s best teammate was absent the last two years after Canadian guard Jamal Murray blew out his knee in April 2021. The last time Jokic and Murray were together in the post-season, they advanced to the final four in the Disney World bubble, where a then 23-year-old Murray broke through with a pair of 50-point games and two others with at least 40.
With Murray back to his old self, the dynamic duo has looked brilliant in these playoffs. Jokic, incredibly, is averaging a triple double (29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists) after nearly doing so in the regular season. Murray is right behind in scoring with 27.7 points per game while once again showing he’s not afraid to take the shot in clutch moments. The Kitchener, Ont., native is also averaging 6.1 assists and a team-high 1.7 steals in the playoffs.
“High-end Canadian sidekick helps two-time MVP deliver a title” could have been a tagline for last year’s Finals, where Andrew Wiggins was arguably the second-best player on the Steph Curry-led Warriors team that won the championship. Murray and Jokic might be the stars of a reboot.