McGraw: NBA Finals matchup is a quest for first ring between Butler, Jokic
One basic truth has held form for decades in the NBA.
It's tough to beat the best player.
That's why Steph Curry, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and some others all won multiple championships.
This year's NBA Finals offers a different look, a couple of established stars battling to win their first title -- Miami's Jimmy Butler and Denver's Nikola Jokic. It is similar to 2021 when Milwaukee and Phoenix met in the Finals.
Butler and Jokic have both been outstanding while traveling different paths through the playoffs. The Nuggets posted the best record in the Western Conference and were never seriously pushed on the way to the first Finals trip in franchise history.
Miami, of course, was roughly three minutes from not even making the playoffs. In the final play-in game, Coby White hit a 3-pointer with 3:47 left to put the Bulls ahead 90-87. The Bulls then got a defensive stop and had a chance to extend the lead.
But once Miami started to buckle down, it was no contest. Even though the Heat didn't take the lead until the 2:17 mark, the Bulls were outscored 15-1 in those final three minutes.
That's sort of how Miami's playoff run went. Whenever pushed, Butler and the Heat always had a response.
"If they end up winning the championship, it will be the most unlikely champion that I can remember, because they would have beaten the teams with the top two records in the NBA (Milwaukee and Boston), they will then have beaten the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference in this playoff run," ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy said on a conference call with reporters. "So the journey has been straight through the heart of greatness."
Of course, there are some solid Chicago connections here, since Heat starters Butler and Max Strus are both former Bulls, while Strus grew up in Hickory Hills and attended Stagg High School.
The Bulls could learn something about roster construction from these teams, who rank 1-2 in the playoffs in 3-point accuracy.
Miami's lineup is basically Butler, center Bam Adebayo and a bunch of guys who can get hot from 3-point range. The 3-point shooters discourage opponents from sending double-teams at Butler, and the Heat only needs a couple guys to get hot between Strus, Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, Duncan Robinson and Kyle Lowry to have a good chance at winning.
Meanwhile, Jokic is having one of the most impressive playoff runs ever. The two-time MVP has basically averaged a 30-point triple-double in the postseason, with 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists. The 6-11 center has also shot nearly 50% from 3-point range.
But the Nuggets have more of a two-star system than Miami. Shooting guard Jamal Murray averaged 32.5 points in the West finals against the Lakers. Otherwise, the Denver supporting cast, guys like Michael Porter Jr., Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, need to knock down 3s to keep the floor spaced. Aaron Gordon generally takes on the toughest defensive challenge.
The Heat lost 20-point scorer Tyler Herro in the very first game of the playoffs with a hand injury, but he is planning to return early in this series.
This one should be interesting. Will Jokic lay claim to being the NBA's best current player? Will Butler take his reputation for being a winner to new levels. Or will it come down to which team hits the most 3-pointers?
Game 1 is Thursday in Denver.