In true David and Goliath fashion, the NBA Finals gets underway Thursday night between two teams led by stars with very unconventional paths. Nikola Jokic and the heavily favored Denver Nuggets will host Jimmy Butler and the long-shot Miami Heat.
Both Jokic and Butler were never really supposed to be here. Jokic, growing up in Serbia, hardly ever even thought about basketball. Butler went from being homeless to playing ball at a Texas junior college. Both were long-shot draft picks, yet here they are duking it out in the NBA Finals — and one will become champion for the first time.
The Nuggets, who drafted Jokic in 2014, are in the finals for the first time in franchise history and were clearly the team to beat all season long. They cruised their way through the Western Conference playoffs, only dropping three of their 15 games played to land them in the Finals.
Miami has been on this stage before — seven times actually as they now seek a fourth title. But their path was a bit rockier. The Heat had to win a play-in single-elimination game just to land a spot in the playoffs and were able to rally their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Despite almost blowing a 3-0 series lead against the Boston Celtics, Miami held on to become just the second team ever to make the Finals as a No. 8 seed.
It's a story that even the craziest of bettors never saw coming. But it's not all about Jokic and Butler. Both teams have big-time players that have contributed all season long, namely Bam Adebayo for the Heat and Jamal Murray for the Nuggets.
The Heat were also helped in their journey to the Finals by their undrafted breakout star Caleb Martin, who averaged 19.3 points per game against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
With an elevation difference of about 5,200 feet between Denver and Miami, it all comes down to which team can rise to the occasion. Jokic, a two-time MVP, is four wins away from his first NBA Championship ring. Butler is four wins away from the ring he's been certain about all season long.
Game one of the best-of-seven series tips off tonight from Ball Arena at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC. The teams will stay there for game two on Sunday before heading to Miami for games three through five. If needed, the series will close out with games six and seven back in Denver.
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