Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Miami’s Bam Adebayo lead their teams into the NBA Finals, starting Thursday. Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

During these NBA Finals, basketball will have to be enough. There are no championship-collecting icons to obsess over, no dynasties to dissect, no obvious pizazz to entice casual followers to join the avid. It’s just the Denver Nuggets and the Miami Heat – two teams full of substance but lacking garnish – ready to give the sport what it needs, even if some of the audience may not want it.

Will the matchup suffice? Probably not if you care only about buzz and eye-popping television ratings. But the game isn’t so fragile that it will suffer because a wide-open playoffs produced something offbeat. For the long-term health of the NBA, it’s an important step to witness Nikola Jokic, the fabulous, mold-breaking two-time MVP, commanding the stage with a Denver team that has some staying power as a title contender. And with load management burdening the sport, the relentless nature of Jimmy Butler and Coach Erik Spoelstra’s celebrated Heat culture offer a different story.

“We have a bunch of guys that just love competition,” Spoelstra said. “Just drop us off anywhere and compete for it. Put ourselves out there, open to all the criticism and everything. But, hey, it’s got to happen between these four lines. We don’t care what the rest of the world is saying. We don’t care who is criticizing who. You’ve got to line up between these four lines, and let’s figure this out.”

Those four lines. Baseline to baseline. Sideline to sideline. The Finals will live humbly within that space.

The Nuggets, the top team in the Western Conference for nearly the entire season, won’t have a problem competing. They advanced to the Finals for the first time in franchise history. With Jokic serving as their point center, with Jamal Murray healthy and attacking, they’re a dynamite offensive team with a good defensive scheme and the right complementary pieces to enhance their athleticism and toughness. If not for the historically low opinion of the Nuggets, they would’ve been taken seriously as a top contender all season. But they’ve been able to turn feeling slighted into motivation. They play with an edge that has developed gradually over Coach Michael Malone’s eight seasons in Denver.

With home-court advantage and a better roster, Denver will have to get comfortable in the favorite’s role now. The Heat, just the second No. 8 seed to make the championship round, trailed with three minutes left in the play-in tournament before going on this run. Don’t call it a magical run, however. It’s a convincing one that has included the Heat taking down two prime contenders, Milwaukee and Boston. They’re not just any 44-38 team. They’re a 44-38 team that made the Finals in 2020 and fell one three-pointer shy of another appearance last season.


It’s hard to know how a Nuggets team with several Finals newbies will react to the bright lights. They don’t figure to be timid, however.

“You get to the Finals, it’s not about seeding anymore, and for those who are thinking that this is going to be an easy series, I don’t even know what to say to you people,” Malone said. “This is going to be the biggest challenge of our lives.”

This is just the second Finals since 2011 in which neither LeBron James nor Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors will appear. And both of those Finals have occurred within the last three years, signaling the transition from that great era. In 2021, the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns interrupted 10 straight years of familiarity, and it was far from boring. The series ended with a Giannis Antetokounmpo masterpiece in Game 6. He finished with 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks to complete a Finals MVP performance and deliver Milwaukee its first NBA title in 50 years.

Now, Jokic is in the same position that Antetokounmpo was in two years ago. Antetokounmpo endured similar criticism for failing to translate back-to-back regular season MVPs into postseason success. He just kept evolving, kept making winning plays. In his own style, Joker has been just as steadfast.

For most of its history, the NBA has been defined by championship-hogging superstars and all-time great teams. Before this LeBron/Steph period, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant were featured in every Finals from 1999 to 2010. From 1980 to 1998, the Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets or Detroit Pistons had a representative in every Finals. All five of those teams claimed multiple championships. In fact, there was only one other team that hoisted the trophy during that span: the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983.

The NBA is such a league of repetitive dominance that it’s only natural to turn your nose up at something new. But this is a good time to shift the conversation. The old storylines were getting stale. If these playoffs had yielded another LeBron or Steph moment in the Finals, it would’ve been the result of competitive malpractice from the rest of the league.


Instead, two persistent teams made it this far with cleverly built rosters and unselfish play. You’ll hear a lot about Jokic and Butler, and the material will be fresh. It won’t be a prolonged discussion of legacy. They’re just trying to break through, finally.

Ask Butler about his team, and he says: “I don’t call them role players. I call them teammates, because your role can change any given day, especially how many games I’ve missed, in and out of lineup, off nights, whatever you want to call it. But we have some hoopers. We have some real-deal basketball players that can score, can defend and can pass and can win games for us.”

Ask Jokic about himself, and he focuses on parenthood.

“Basketball is not the main thing in my life, and [it’s] probably never going to be,” said Jokic, whose daughter, Ognjena, was born in 2021. “And to be honest, I look at it because I have something more at home that is more important than basketball. I knew that but this kind of proved me that I’m correct.”

If the Nuggets and Heat don’t seem like a dream matchup, perhaps that’s partly because a few legends discouraged such imagination. Not this season, though. The 2023 Finals are unfamiliar, and as odd as it seems right now, the change may prove refreshing.

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