DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic wasn’t supposed to be here. Neither was Jimmy Butler, for that matter.
Jokic was drafted behind 40 other players in 2014. Butler was drafted behind 29 others in 2011. Jokic grew up in Serbia, not even thinking about the NBA. Butler didn’t have the easiest upbringing in Texas, then went the junior college route at the start of his journey toward the pros.
Yet here they are in the NBA Finals.
One of them will become a champion for the first time, with Jokic leading the Denver Nuggets and Butler leading the Miami Heat in a matchup that starts Thursday night in Denver, with the Nuggets heavily favored to win it all.
“This is going to be the hardest game of our life, and we know that,” Jokic said. “We are prepared for that. We are prepared for that. So, I think there is no favorite. Definitely, I think we are not favorites in this series. I think they’re not either. I think it’s just the finals.”
The Nuggets — in the finals for the first time — had by far the easier road to the title round. They climbed atop the Western Conference standings in mid-December and never fell from that perch, then lived up to that No. 1 seed by going 12-3 in the West playoffs.
Miami — a seven-time finalist now, seeking a fourth title — had about the rockiest path to the Rocky Mountains that a team could have. The Heat had to rally in a play-in elimination game just to make the playoffs, knocked out No. 1 overall seed Milwaukee in Round 1, rival New York in Round 2 and then just had to go win a Game 7 in Boston, after nearly wasting a 3-0 lead, to vanquish last season’s loss to the Celtics in the East finals.
“This is a special group,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This group has been able to overcome a lot of different things, handle a lot of adversity, setbacks, things that have not gone the way we wanted them to go. And instead of having that collapse our spirit, it allowed us to develop some fortitude and grit collectively, and give us something to rally around, which was each other.”
At 44-38 this season, Miami would tie the worst regular-season record ever by an NBA champion. The Washington Bullets had that record and won the 1978 title. There were 10 teams that finished this season with better records than Miami — nine of them are no longer playing — and 589 teams in NBA history that had better regular seasons than the 2022-23 Heat yet still didn’t win a title.
They are improbable finalists. Their leader took an improbable path, too. But after stints with Chicago, Philadelphia and Minnesota didn’t always go as planned, Butler is now in the finals with Miami for a second time in four years.
“I would like to say that I’m never rattled. I’m very calm,” Butler said. “I’m very consistent in everything that I do, whether it’s before the game, after the game, during the game, and I think when my guys look at me like that, they follow suit in every single way. I love that about them because they’re never shook. No matter what.”
It’s not about Jokic vs. Butler; both have big-time players around them as well, namely Jamal Murray for Denver and Bam Adebayo for Miami. Jokic and Butler are the two leading scorers left in these playoffs; Jokic is averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists, while Butler is averaging 28.5 per game — including a playoff-high 56 to help oust the Bucks.
Jokic is a two-time MVP, was in the conversation for a third in a row this year, has seen about every defense imaginable and rarely blinks at any of them. Play off him, he’ll shoot and score. Play tight, he’ll set up someone for an easier shot. He’s as close to fundamental perfection as there might be in the league right now. Not bad for a guy who got drafted while the broadcast was airing a Taco Bell commercial — true story — and never thought he’d make the NBA when he arrived in the U.S.
“With Nikola, it’s never about looking backward. It’s always about looking forward and challenging himself to become the best player that he can be,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Early on, being the best player he could be was not necessarily about a skill set. It was about maturing, growing up, handling adversity, dealing with the referees, getting into the best shape of his life, losing weight. I think once that all happened, that kind of coincided with our rise.”
The team that plays at the highest altitude in the NBA — 5,280 feet above sea level — has risen to its highest level yet. Jokic is four wins from his first ring. Butler is four wins from the ring he has been talking about getting all year, even when Miami’s record didn’t exactly suggest the Heat would be here.
But here they are. The West finals MVP in Jokic. The East finals MVP in Butler. The prize they want most is just four wins away.
“In a lot of ways, what they have done is unprecedented,” Miami forward Kevin Love said. “Obviously, they operate in different ways to get the job done. But still, all things considered, I think they’re two very underappreciated stars and superstars in this league.” By TIM REYNOLDS AP Basketball Writer