DENVER: Nikola Jokic brushed off suggestions the Denver Nuggets were favorites for the NBA Finals on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila), insisting the top seeds were preparing for the “hardest game” of their lives against the Miami Heat.
Denver hosts Miami in Game 1 of the best-of-seven finals on Thursday (Friday in Manila), aiming to end nearly half a century of futility by winning their first ever championship.
Bookmakers have installed the Western Conference champions as heavy favorites to clinch the series against an eighth-seeded Miami side who only scraped into the postseason via the play-in tournament.
“I think we are not the favorite,” Jokic told reporters. “I think in the finals there is no favorites.
“Definitely I think we are not favorites in this series. I think they’re not either. It’s just the finals.”
Miami are expected to deploy defensive stalwart Bam Adebayo to contain two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Jokic, who has averaged 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists in his 15 postseason games this year.
Jokic however emphasized that Denver’s strength was in their team ethic, challenging the idea that an individual duel would decide the outcome of Game 1.
“It’s not Bam against me or whatever, whoever,” Jokic said. “It’s Denver against Miami. Just because I think we kind of have a similar play style, we are getting everybody involved. We like to play team basketball.
“It’s not going to be me against him or anybody against anybody. It’s going to be Miami against Denver.”
No bad blood
Jimmy Butler, meanwhile, said there was no lingering bad blood between the Heat and Nuggets.
Miami and Denver met in a fiery regular season clash in the 2021-2022 season, when Nuggets star Nikola Jokic poleaxed then Miami player Markieff Morris from behind.
That sparked a melee involving players from both sides. A furious Butler challenged Denver’s players to settle their differences in the tunnel after the game.
Jokic and Morris were both ejected while Jokic was later suspended for one game following the incident at Denver’s Ball Arena.
Butler moved to draw a line under the controversy on Wednesday when talking to reporters on the eve of Miami’s clash with Denver in Game 1 of the finals.
“There’s a lot of stuff about the whole situation that people don’t understand, and I’ll let that stay back there,” Butler said.
“I don’t think it has too much to do with anything, this thing in the past. It’s high-level competition.”
Butler was at pains to clarify however that his angry on-court tirade during that 2021 game was not directed at Jokic.
“I will say I wasn’t talking to Jokic,” said Butler. “That wasn’t my beef. Make sure you write that. The individual who I was talking to definitely knew who I was talking to.”
Butler meanwhile said Miami would need to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to containing Jokic, Denver’s two-time NBA MVP who is averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists during this postseason.
Asked what would be the key to slowing down Jokic, Butler replied: “Guarding him as a team with all five guys.
“He does everything so well, and we’re going to have to be in the gaps, we’re going to have to gang rebound.
“We can’t have defensive lapses. We’re just going to have to get after it. I think at the end of the day, he’s a major key… and we’re going to have to lock in.”
Butler has been the talismanic driving force of Miami’s remarkable playoff run this year, which saw them reach the finals despite being the lowly-ranked eighth seeds.
The 33-year-old forward said Miami’s players had always believed in their ability to mount a deep postseason run based on the quality of the roster displayed in practice.
“We do it every single day, and we know what we’re capable of,” Butler said.
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