Nikola Jokic pushed his bottom lip toward his nose, squared his eyebrows and served his perspective of what it means to be the best player on the court for the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals.
"Sometimes I am, sometimes I'm not. I'm cool with that," said Jokic, a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player. "I think the way we play, everybody can step up, everybody can be a best player in one game or whatever, week, whatever."
Jokic has averaged a triple-double in the playoffs to put the Nuggets in the Finals for the first time, where the Eastern Conference play-in tournament survivor Miami Heat stand in the way of Denver claiming the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
While not mirror images, the teams are anchored by All-Stars and a decidedly unique team-first focus. In a given playoff game, either team could turn to a journeyman -- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for the Nuggets or Caleb Martin of the Heat, as relevant examples -- in crunch time. Television promos and social media framing of Jokic vs. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo isn't an accurate depiction of what's in store in the best-of-seven series.
"It's Denver against Miami. Just because I think we kind of have a similar play style, we are getting everybody involved," Jokic said. "We like to play team basketball."
The Heat ran through the East even after losing high-scoring sixth man Tyler Herro to a broken hand. Through the door and onto the stage the Heat brought a bevy of role players to fill the void, including Martin, Gabe Vincent and the re-emergence of Duncan Robinson. Herro went through a full workout and hasn't been fully cleared for contact. If he returns, the Heat will adjust again, a credit to the culture of a team with multiple undrafted players like Robinson, Max Strus, Haywood Highsmith, Vincent and Martin.
"We have a connection and a competitive spirit, especially lately, just throughout the midst of this run. I think it's kind of all coming together at the right time," Robinson said. Those two things alone can really, really carry you. ... If you kind of have that collective trust and competitive spirit and grit to fall back on, I think that always gives you a chance."
Denver set an NBA record for offensive efficiency in the regular season. Head coach Michael Malone said the difference between the 82-game regular season and the playoffs is the level of defensive commitment he received from the Nuggets. While Miami is leading all playoff teams at just under 20 points per game off of turnovers, the Nuggets are locking in on containing Butler.
"With a guy like Jimmy, you've got to give him different looks," Malone said. "You cannot guard him with the same play or the same scheme over a game, over four quarters or a series. That's going to be a challenge to give him different looks and to keep him off the foul line."
Jokic's All-Star sidekick, Jamal Murray, had three games with 30 or more points in the Western Conference finals, a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers that provided the Nuggets a nine-day break as the Heat went to seven games with the Boston Celtics. On the Heat hit list this postseason are Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, the New York Knicks and Jayson Tatum's Celtics.
Murray said Miami's chemistry beat star power to set up the 2023 Finals.
"They're unselfish looking for the shot, looking for the best shot," Murray said. "They use the whole shot clock. I think they're very well-rounded team and they trust each other. They've trusted each other a lot throughout the season. I think that's what sets them apart from all the other teams in the East that they faced. I think they're really together through the ups and downs. They're very resilient. Kind of like us in a sense where we're very resilient."
--Field Level Media