The NBA Finals begin Thursday night in Denver, even if they won’t won’t mark the 13th championship-round meeting between the two winningest teams in league history, the Lakers and the Celtics.
Those legendary franchises were bounced in the conference finals this year, but the storylines still are plentiful as the Heat and the Nuggets continue their respective quests to make history this spring.
Here are the five most compelling narratives to follow — both on an individual and collective level — ahead of Thursday’s Game 1 at Ball Arena in the Mile High City:
No Joking Matter
The Joker has resulted in Academy Awards for both Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix, one of only three roles in movie history to earn an Oscar for two different actors or actresses.
Nikola Jokic is a two-time league MVP — and he finished second this year to Joel Embiid — yet this finally figures to be the overdue national coming-out party and legacy series for the 28-year-old Serbian center.
Jokic now lands on the game’s biggest stage for the first time in his career after leading the Nuggets to a 12-3 record in the Western Conference playoffs, featuring the triple-double he averaged (27.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 11.8 assists) in a sweep of the Lakers.
A Mile-high Dream
The Nuggets have been in the NBA for 47 years following the ABA merger in 1976, yet this is the franchise’s first trip to the championship round in their history, as they seek their first title.
They finished the regular season atop the West with a record of 53-29, and they are now 42-7 on their high-altitude home court, including a perfect 8-0 in the playoffs.
Dynamic guard Jamal Murray, playing at his highest level following 2021 surgery, is the Robin to Jokic’s Batman, but Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and former Nets vets Jeff Green and Bruce Brown provide trustworthy depth for head coach Michael Malone, a former Knicks assistant coach.
Jimmy Butler has been on a mission throughout the playoffs for the eighth-seeded Heat, leading his team to eye-opening victories over the No. 1 Bucks, the Knicks and the Celtics through the Eastern side of the bracket.
Butler, a six-time All-Star on his fourth NBA team, is looking for his affirming first ring, while the Heat have a chance to become the first No. 8 seed to lift the championship trophy, 24 years after Jeff Van Gundy’s eighth-place Knicks lost in the Finals to the Spurs in 1999.
The Heat finished 27th in the league in 3-point shooting, yet they lead the league in efficiency from beyond the arc at 39 percent in the postseason.
Remarkably, that improvement has come without leading marksman Tyler Herro, who has been sidelined since Game 2 of the opening round against the Bucks with a broken hand.
The 2022 Sixth Man of the Year winner is expected back at some point in the series, to help outside shooters Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Kyle Lowry and breakout star Caleb Martin.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has his squad back in the Finals for the second time in four years, looking to add a ring to the two titles he won alongside the Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2012 and 2013.
Spoelstra already had been tabbed earlier this season as one of the top 15 coaches of all time to commemorate the NBA’s 75th anniversary, but one more title puts him in lofty company as the seventh coach to win at least three championships — behind only Phil Jackson (11), Red Auerbach (9), John Kundla (5), Pat Riley (5), Gregg Popovich (5) and Steve Kerr (4).