1 of 6 | Star forward Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat will meet the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday in Denver. Photo by Rhona Wise/EPA-EFE
MIAMI, June 1 (UPI) -- The Miami Heat will seek to become the first No. 8 seed to win a title, while the Denver Nuggets aim to win their first Larry O'Brien Trophy in an underdog-versus-juggernaut NBA Finals matchup starting Thursday.
Game 1 of the unique best-of-seven series will tip off at 8:30 p.m. EDT at Ball Arena in Denver. The NBA Finals will air on ABC.
"You get to the NBA Finals and 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," Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters Tuesday.
"This is going to be the biggest challenge of our lives."
Games 1 and 2 will be in Denver. Games 3 and 4 will be in Miami. Games 5 and 7, if necessary, will return to Ball Arena. The Heat could host Game 6, if the series extends past five games.
Ticket prices for Game 1 in Denver ranged from $538 to more than $50,000 on the secondary market as of Wednesday afternoon. Ticket prices for Game 3 in Miami ranged from $445 to more than $50,000.
Malone's Nuggets are 8.5-point favorites to win Game 1. They won a Western Conference-best 53 games and have one of the top offenses in the NBA, shooting a league-best 50.4% from the floor in the regular season.
They made it to the NBA Finals by beating the Minnesota Timberwolves 4-1 in the first round and topping the Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the conference semifinals. They then swept the Los Angeles Lakers to reach the title series for the first time in franchise history.
"Yes, we made history, but at the end of the day, next year, nobody is going to remember us or two years from now," Nuggets star center Nikola Jokic told reporters. "Maybe if we win it all, maybe it's going to be different, but we will see."
The Lakers' sweep afforded the Nuggets nine days of rest before the NBA Finals. The Heat, who needed 18 playoff games and two play-in games to reach the NBA Finals, got just two days off before returning to the floor.
Poor shooting and a slow start led to low outside expectations for the Heat during the regular season.
Coach Erik Spoelstra and star player Jimmy Butler sparked a turnaround, leading the play-in entrants to an upset in the first round of the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and their NBA-best 58 regular-season wins. The Heat then beat the No. 5 New York Knicks in six games.
Butler and the Heat raced to a 3-0 series lead on the No. 2 Boston Celtics, who won the second most games in the NBA, before their foes rallied to tie the Eastern Conference finals 3-3. The Heat then blew out the Celtics in Boston in Game 7 to continue an unprecedented run to the Finals.
"I think probably people can relate to this team," Spoelstra told reporters Monday. "Life is hard. Professional sports is just kind of a reflection sometimes of life, that things don't always go your way. The inevitable setbacks happen and it's how you deal with that collectively.
"There's a lot of different ways that it can go. It can sap your spirit. It can take a team down for whatever reason. With this group, it's steeled us and made us closer and made us tougher."
The Heat are the first play-in team to reach the Finals. They are the second No. 8 seed, joining the 1998-99 Knicks, to reach the Finals. Those Knicks lost in five games to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 title series.
The Heat faced relentless adversity throughout the 2022-23 campaign. They started the year 7-11, but went 20-10 during a 30-game stretch from mid-December through mid-February and never again fell below .500.
They maintained a strong defense, allowing the second-fewest points in the league, but were held back by an offense that averaged the fewest points in the NBA.
They then lost sharpshooting guard Tyler Herro -- and his 20.1 points per game -- to a broken hand in the first round of the playoffs and fellow guard Victor Oladipo to a knee injury in the same series.
Despite those player losses and a history of poor shooting, the Heat offense warmed up in the playoffs, shooting the fifth-best percentage (47.2%) in the league. Heat players also hit a league-best 39% of their 3-point attempts, just ahead of the Nuggets (38.6%).
Butler and Jokic -- arguably the best player in the NBA -- most likely will draw the most attention during the series.
A two-time NBA MVP, Jokic is averaging a triple double, with 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists per game this postseason. Butler logged 28.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.1 steals per game during the Heat's run.
Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, who made nearly 40% of his 3-point attempts this season, will be another key player in the series. Murray, who averaged 20 points per game in 2022-23, logged 27.7 points per game and posted the same 3-point percentage this postseason.
Forwards Michael Porter Jr. (14.6), Aaron Gordon (13), guard-forward Bruce Brown (12.2) and guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (11.7) also are averaging double figures in scoring this postseason. Porter hit 40.8% of his 3-point attempts in the playoffs.
Center Bam Adebayo (16.8), forward Caleb Martin (14.1), guard Gabe Vincent (13.1), guard-forward Max Strus (10.3), forward Duncan Robinson (9.3) and guard Kyle Lowry (8.8) are the Heat's top offensive contributors this postseason.
Martin is averaging nearly five more points per game than he did in the regular season, while Vincent is averaging nearly four more points than his 2022-23 average. Martin also logged 19.3 points per game in the Eastern Conference finals, including 26 in Game 7.
"We have been talking about how the regular season has been preparing us for these moments, and I just think it comes full circle," Martin said,
The Heat drew contributions from an unsuspecting cast -- role players who have become stars -- throughout the postseason. The lineup flexibility allows Spoelstra to use many different offensive and defensive strategies to combat foes. The Heat also could get a boost offensively if Herro returns.
Herro underwent surgery on his right shooting hand and participated in pregame shooting drills during the Celtics series. He expects to return at some point during the Finals.
Still, the Heat must find a way to limit Jokic -- a nearly 7-foot center who passes and shoots like a guard -- and the Nuggets' offensive weaponry. That's a task no team has completed this postseason.
But Butler remains confident in his team, which started the season slow, shot poorly, lost multiple key players and were rocked with additional turbulence by losing a play-in game.
A year ago, he even predicted the Heat -- who weren't favored in any playoff series -- would somehow find the NBA's grandest stage.
"Everybody's confidence is so high," Butler said. "We have belief that we can do something incredibly special. So we are going to hit the ground running when we get to Denver, and I like our chances."
All times EDT
Game 1: Heat at Nuggets at 8:30 p.m. on ABC
Game 2: Heat at Nuggets at 8 p.m. on ABC
Game 3: Nuggets at Heat at 8:30 p.m. on ABC
Game 4: Nuggets at Heat at 8:30 p.m. on ABC
Game 5 (if necessary): Heat at Nuggets at 8:30 p.m. on ABC
Game 6 (if necessary): Nuggets at Heat at 8:30 p.m. on ABC
Game 7 (if necessary): Heat at Nuggets at 8 p.m. on ABC