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NBA Notebook: ‘Selfless superstar’ Jokic, Canada’s Murray set for Finals debuts

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The Denver Nuggets are considered by most basketball fans, pundits and oddsmakers to be heavy favourites against the Miami Heat heading into the 2023 NBA Finals and are expected to win the franchise’s first championship.

Just don’t tell that to Nikola Jokic.

“Who said that we are favourites?” the stoic All-NBA centre and two-time league MVP asked when prompted during his NBA Finals media day appearance in Denver on Wednesday. “I think we are not the favourites. I think in the Finals there are no favourites. These are going to be the hardest games of our lives and we know that and we are prepared for that. … There are no favourites in the Finals in my opinion.”

Jokic is averaging a triple-double through 15 games this post-season — 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists — and will clearly be a focal point of the series.

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Nuggets coach Michael Malone has watched Jokic progress from a second-round draft pick to a dominant force since joining Denver eight years ago and said the first game that really opened his eyes to how great Jokic could be was back in his rookie season in 2015-16 when Denver faced Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs.

Jokic, going up against a Hall of Famer like Duncan, posted his first career double-double and registered 23 points, which was a career-high for him at the time and the second-most points he registered as a rookie. Malone said Wednesday “Tim Duncan was a selfless superstar” and added he views Jokic in a similar light, even suggesting his centre is almost embarrassed by all the attention he receives.

“I think he’s a great player to look up to and model your game after,” Jokic said of Duncan, who won two regular-season MVPs, five NBA titles and three Finals MVPs during his Hall of Fame career.

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How will Heat attempt to cool the Joker?

Jokic can expect to see plenty of the Heat’s Bam Adebayo in this series but knows the way Miami defends him won’t be that straightforward.

“It’s not going to be me against him or me against anybody,” Jokic said. “It’s going to be Miami versus Denver and that’s why it’s interesting.”

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The 28-year-old Serbian is prepared for multiple looks, including facing some tricky zone defence.  

“We’re going to see tomorrow (in Game 1),” Jokic said. “We saw the zone (in the regular season and playoffs) but definitely didn’t see this kind of zone because they are switching the zones and really really messing up the game in their favour and we just need to be focussed and solid in what we’re doing. That’s why they’re great, that’s why they’re winning, that’s why they’re in the Finals. … I don’t know how it’s going to affect me. We’ll see tomorrow. Maybe I’m going to have 10 turnovers, maybe I’m going to have 10 points. We will see.”

Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra spoke highly of the Nuggets superstar.

“He’s very unique, doesn’t have any noticeable weaknesses in terms of size and skill set. He’s one of one,” Spoelstra told reporters. “When it comes to Jokic you’re going to need several bigs and we have that.”

Miami’s Jimmy Butler said the key to slowing down Jokic is “guarding him as a team with all five guys.”

“We can’t have defensive lapses,” Butler said. “We’re just going to have to get after it. He’s a major key and we have to lock in.”

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Denver’s dynamic duo a daunting task for Miami

Jokic certainly isn’t the only Nuggets player the Heat have to specifically gameplan for. Jamal Murray is enjoying a terrific comeback campaign and has taken his game to a new level in these playoffs.

The 26-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., is averaging 27.7 points, 6.1 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 1.7 steals and is shooting 92.5 per cent from the line in the post-season, and was near unstoppable in his team’s sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Final.

Spoelstra mentioned he has great respect for the Denver organization and mentioned he thinks if Murray didn’t get hurt late in the 2020-21 season and didn’t miss all of 2021-22 “they probably would already have a couple Finals appearances.”

“They both can do it on their own and both complement each other,” Spoelstra said of Jokic and Murray. “That’s hard to find in this league. They both can and have scored 50 in a playoff game [Murray twice in 2020 and Jokic in Game 4 against the Suns this year]. Both can be facilitators. They play the right way and we have to get them out of that rhythm.”

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Spoelstra said the Nuggets have done a great job building their culture and a system that fits around their top two players, adding, “You’re not going to have any weakness or cracks in their culture and we feel the same way about our group, which is great for competition.”

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Murray excited to be back at Finals (this time on the court)

Murray noted that “it was cool to see the attention the Raptors got” from Canadian basketball fans back when Toronto made their 2019 championship run. Murray did some media work during those Finals and got a small taste of what a championship atmosphere can be like.

The guard knows he’ll be receiving plenty of support from back home, which serves as added motivation for him to continue performing at an elite level.

“The support has been crazy back home,” he said. “Means a lot, especially from a small town like Kitchener.”

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Defending Butler and an unconventional Heat roster

Murray said it’s “going to take a team effort” to defend Heat star Jimmy Butler, who leads a roster that relies on a number of undrafted players. Murray said stopping Butler will consist of using straight hands to defend one-on-one and jumping straight up when he attacks the rim.

“I think these are the last teams remaining and have the most chemistry within each other,” Murray said before praising this Heat team. “(Kyle) Lowry’s been a champion. Jimmy’s been in the playoffs a ton. They can all play, drafted or not. The handoffs, the balls hopping, they’re unselfish. Looking for the best shot, they use the whole shot clock. They’ve trusted each other throughout the whole season and that sets them apart.”

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Murray said Miami is a resilient team like Denver is and the Heat’s gritty defence contrasted with Denver being more offensive sets up a fun series.

“We have four wins to go (and) can’t get complacent,” Murray said. “Stay in the right mindset and everything will come.”

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Altitude, rest, health, experience among key x-factors

Spoelstra dismissed the notion that the altitude in Denver will put the Heat at a disadvantage, saying the series is “going to be decided between those four lines,” and joked that it’ll be hot when the series shifts back to Florida for Game 3 and Game 4 and they can turn the air conditioning off in the Kaseya Center to even things up if necessary.

The Heat eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks in five and the New York Knicks in six before taking a seven-game series over the Boston Celtics, winning Game 7 on Monday night after initially blowing a 3-0 series lead.

Miami had to travel more than 2,700 k.m. with little rest and time to prepare for Game 1 against the Nuggets, which takes place Thursday night at Ball Arena.

Spoelstra confirmed Tyler Herro will not play in Game 1 and his status for the series is still unknown as they take it day by day. Butler alluded to his ankle still not being 100 per cent healthy but added that “nobody cares” if he’s 100 per cent and “we gonna get the job done.”

Meanwhile, Denver beat the Minnesota Timberwolves in five and the Phoenix Suns in six in the first two rounds and they’ve been off for more than a week after sweeping the Lakers.

One advantage the Heat have, arguably, is on the experience side. Spoelstra is about to coach in his sixth NBA Finals since 2011.

In addition to Spoelstra’s leadership, the Heat roster also has veteran savvy and championship experience. Kyle Lowry won in 2019 with the Raptors and Kevin Love won in 2016 with the Cavs. Both know what it takes to have success in the Finals and will be counted on in this series, while Butler lead his team in scoring back in 2020 when Miami lost in six games to the Lakers in the bubble.

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