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‘This is going to be the biggest challenge of our lives. This is the NBA Finals.’

Posted: Thursday, June 1, 2023. 6:23 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: One are the favorites, there for the first time but as poised in getting there as the team they beat to make it. The other are proud underdogs, whose franchise has been there before and won it all, but possessed of an enduring confidence that they can do it again.

Top-seeded Denver Nuggets of the West versus eighth-seeded Miami Heat of the East meet starting tonight for the Larry O’Brien Memorial Trophy – and the world will be watching.

So often, as the BBC notes in its preview, the series is reduced to its biggest stars for each side – Denver’s Serbian center Nikola Jokic, former two-time league most valuable player, a precocious creator adept at all facets of the game, versus Miami’s talismanic small forward Jimmy Butler, who toiled with three teams amid questions over his leadership style until he found a fit with the Heat and began building the legend of ‘Playoff Jimmy’ – leading the Heat to two Finals appearances in four years and this year defying the odds to get the Heat to the Finals after losing their first play-in game.

But especially in the case of Miami, ignoring the role players leads to peril. Caleb Martin has been the most impressive for Miami, leading a group of undrafted players including Gabe Vincent, Max Strus and Duncan Robinson. Seven undrafted players have played for the Heat in the play-offs and 52 percent of their points against Boston were scored by undrafted players – both figures the highest for a Finals team since 1966. The Heat are just the third team in 35 seasons to reach the Finals despite being underdogs in each of their first three play-off series, after the 1999 Knicks and the 1995 Houston Rockets, who upset the Orlando Magic.

Pegged back to 3-3 in the Eastern Conference Finals, Butler promised Finals tickets to tennis star Coco Gauff so she could watch a Finals game in person ‘when we make it.’ If Miami can stretch the series to six games and Gauff wins the ongoing French Open, she could celebrate two titles in South Florida.

Game 1 gets underway this evening on ABC-TV and we will have the result shortly thereafter.

 

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