Illustration by team illustrator Sakura Siegel.
Not many people may have seen this coming.
The No. 1 seed Denver Nuggets will be hosting No. 8 seed Miami Heat to kick off the 2023 NBA Finals.
This matchup will continue the streak of a different NBA Champion each year since 2019. During this period, the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors were all crowned as champions. Now, either the Nuggets will capture their first championship, or the Heat will capture their fourth.
Let’s take a look into each of these teams and how they made it to this point:
This wasn’t a huge surprise, but they were able to knock out the Kevin Durant and Devin Booker-led Phoenix Suns, who many thought would be the team to come out of the West.
The Nuggets have now made their first-ever finals appearance, but that wasn’t their goal: they’re looking to win it all.
The Nuggets boast a 12-3 postseason record this year, not facing elimination a single time at this point.
They eliminated the Minnesota Timberwolves in five games, but faced a bigger threat in the second round. After a tied 2-2 series after four games against the Phoenix Suns, the Nuggets were able to close out the series in six. Then, the Los Angeles Lakers were up next, but proved no match for the Nuggets as they were swept.
They are led by 2x MVP Nikola Jokic, who was the runner-up for MVP this year as well. Combined with dynamic scoring guard Jamal Murray and a deep roster filled with defenders and scorers, the Nuggets built an ideal team around their superstar.
The Nuggets made the Western Conference Finals in 2020, and many thought they would continue to improve, however they unfortunately ran into injury issues, cutting their 2021 and 2022 postseasons short.
Now, Jokic has a healthy supporting cast around him and has been dominating this postseason, averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 10.3 assists. Murray has also kicked into another gear, averaging 27.7 points, 6.1 assists, and 5.3 rebounds.
The Nuggets arguably have two of the top three best players in the finals.
They have been cruising this postseason, and are heavily favored to win it all. If Jokic and Murray continue their dominance while their supporting cast remains consistent, it’s hard not to envision the Nuggets hoisting the NBA Championship.
This, for many, has been a shocker.
The Miami Heat became the second team to make the finals as an 8th seed, following the 1998-1999 New York Knicks. They had to go through the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 5 seeds in their conference in order to make it to this point.
The Miami Heat have now made their seventh finals appearance, and have won three championships. Their last title was in 2013 and their last finals appearance was in 2020.
The Heat have gone 12-6 up until this point in the postseason. They dismantled the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round and had a more difficult time against the New York Knicks in the second round, but still avoided playing in any elimination games within the first two rounds.
The Heat went up 3-0 against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, and almost suffered a historical collapse, losing three straight. They hung on and were able to close the series in seven games to advance to the finals.
The Heat are led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Butler tends to ascend to superstar status in the playoffs, averaging 28.5 points, 7 rebounds, and 5.7 assists thus far this postseason. Adebayo has been averaging 16.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 3.8 assists in these playoffs.
A huge reason for the Heat’s postseason success has been the ascension of Butler and role players stepping up. They have been heavy underdogs against the Bucks and Celtics, but were able to get the job done and advance.
They now find themselves in that same position, and look to end off the 2023 season as NBA Champions. The series tips off in Denver on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. EST.