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Jokic vs. Butler: Two unique talents seeking career summit in NBA Finals

Denver and Miami kick off the Championship series in Colorado on June 1 with the Serb and the Texan looking to inspire their teams to the title

NBA Finals
Jokic and Butler, in a game between Denver and Miami this season.Megan Briggs (Getty Images)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

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“The city is going to be crazy,” says Mohamud Niro, a tech company employee who predicts Denver, the capital of Colorado, will from Thursday to Sunday be a non-stop party that will see tens of thousands of people flock to downtown. Last year Denver celebrated the Colorado Avalanche’s Stanley Cup win, but basketball has yet to deliver glory to the city as the Broncos have done in the past. The history of the Nuggets stretches back to the American Basketball Association (ABA), the rebel organization that was eventually absorbed into the NBA in 1976 and which brought the Spurs, Pacers, Nets and Nuggets into the fold. Denver fans are confident that Nikola Jokic, the two-times NBA MVP, can finally bring home a championship ring in their first NBA Finals and their first championship series in nearly half a century, since a 4-2 ABA Finals defeat to the Nets in 1975-76. To make history, they will first have to beat the Miami Heat and Jimmy Butler.

Jokic and Butler’s backgrounds could not be more different. The Serbian phenomenon grew up in Sombor, a town near the Hungarian border, in an apartment with his parents, two brothers and grandmother. As a youngster, he preferred mathematics and history lessons to physical activity. Nemanja and Strahinja, his older brothers, passed their love of basketball on to him. Butler, on the other hand, had a difficult childhood in Texas. His father left when he was an infant and his mother kicked him out of the house when he was 13, after which he lived with friends for several weeks at a time until a family adopted him and he was able to continue in high school in Tomball. Butler spends a lot of time in his home state where he visits with his families, including his biological parents.

Butler, 33, has made a career from his ability to overcome adversity. In high school, he was the 72nd-ranked player. Not nationwide, but in Texas. One scout, however, was able to discern the talent that has overflowed during the current playoffs, where Miami has been consistently battling against the current. First, they defeated the Chicago Bulls — the team that signed Butler with the last pick in the first round of the 2011 draft — in the Play-in tournament. Then they eliminated the Bucks and the Celtics, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the Eastern Conference, respectively, as well as knocking off the Knicks in the Conference semifinals. In doing so, the Heat became the second franchise to reach the NBA Finals as the eighth-ranked team in their conference after the Knicks achieved the feat in 1999 with a team featuring Latrell Sprewell, Patrick Ewing, and Larry Johnson.

The Nuggets, who won the Western Conference, are generally considered favorites for the title. Jokic’s team have lost only three games in the postseason and have not played since May 22, when they completed a 4-0 series sweep over LeBron James’ LA Lakers. But if anyone can beat them, it is Butler and the game strategy of Erik Spoelstra, widely regarded as the NBA’s best coach. “We don’t expect anything to be easy,” the Heat coach said Wednesday. Tyler Herro, who fractured his right hand in the opening playoffs series against the Bucks, was present at Wednesday’s practice. Spoelstra has ruled him out of playing in the first two games in Denver, suggesting he could be back by the time the series heads to Miami.

Jokic: “In the Finals, there are no favorites”

Jokic also sought to take some of the pressure off his team’s shoulders ahead of the opener. “I think we’re not the favorites,” the center told ESPN. “In the Finals, there are no favorites. This is going to be the hardest games of our lives.”

Despite Jokic’s note of caution, Denver has been carried away by the Serbian spell. People have flocked to the team store at Ball Stadium, where the Nuggets remain undefeated in the 2022-23 playoffs, to buy jerseys, caps and other merchandise to show their support for the team. Jokic’s No. 15 jerseys have been flying off the shelves. “We nearly made it three years ago; hopefully now we will be repaid for our patience with a title,” says Marina Izquierdo, referring to the Western Conference finals that the Nuggets lost in the 2020 NBA Covid Bubble against the Lakers.

Butler: “We can’t have defensive lapses”

During Wednesday’s press conferences, Butler was asked if the Heat have a specific gameplan to nullify Jokic. “Guarding him as a team with all five guys,” the Miami star replied. “We can’t have defensive lapses. We’re just going to have to get after it.” Butler also noted that the confidence of his teammates, Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, and Duncan Robinson, is at an all-time high. The 28-year-old Serbian, meanwhile, is looking to cement NBA legacy with a championship title. Jokic has already reached the summit individually, as the 2015-2016 Rookie of the Year and NBA MVP in 2021 and 2022. In 15 playoff games this season, he has averaged 29.9 points per game, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists. Las Vegas bookmakers believe he will average a triple-double in each game of the Finals: Jokic has made 29 of his 105 career triple-doubles during the current season.

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