Unprecedented and intriguing, the NBA final will oppose the Nuggets from Thursday, guided by the mountain Nikola Jokic for their first at this stage, to the Heat of the volcano Jimmy Butler, in search of a fourth title, never won by a seeded N.8.
Denver will have waited for the 47th season in its history to afford the opportunity for a coronation. And his trainer Michael Malone did not fail to underline the importance of the moment. “Obviously, this dusty old town in the Rockies has been disrespected for years. We can complain about it or simply accept who we are. But until we are champions, people will continue to be. That's what drives us. Going to the final is not enough. What matters is winning,” he said.
It is at “Mile-High City”, so nicknamed because it culminates at one mile (1,609 m) above sea level, that the first round will begin Thursday at 6.30 p.m. local time (Friday 2.30 a.m. French, 00.30 a.m. GMT). With already a problem for Floridians: the altitude. Many have already testified to the difficulty of adapting to the lack of oxygen, such as former star Shaquille O'Neal who admitted to having "voluntarily made mistakes to catch (his) breath". Denver will receive four times, though this final requires seven matches. But Miami has not won there since 2016.
Not enough, however, to intimidate the Heat of Erik Spoelstra, who takes pleasure in defying the odds since his accession to the play-offs, having come out of the play-offs with a ric-rac. The Bucks of Giannis Antetokounmpo, however favorites for the title, the reborn Knicks and the Celtics finalists last year, have had the bitter experience of it. “No one is satisfied. We did nothing. We're not just playing to win the Eastern Conference. We play to win everything, ”warned Jimmy Butler, determining with his 28.5 average points in this campaign.
An exemplary leader, he is surrounded by other warriors, from the burly Bam Adebayo to the old grognard Kyle Lowry (champion with Toronto in 2019), passing by these sharp second knives, the Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, Duncan Robinson and Max Strus who have the common point of not having been drafted. “They are great competitors. Many people can identify with this team, because sometimes you have to suffer to get what you really want," said Spoelstra, guarantor of the famous "Heat Culture", combining discipline, work ethic and self-sacrifice. flawless, established by President Pat Riley, for whom this will be the 19th final, for nine already won as a player, coach and manager.
It was the latter who coached the champion team in 2006, before leaving the reins to "Spo" crowned in 2012 and 2013, but also defeated in the finals of 2011 and 2014, with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. After the sixth lost in 2020 with the Butler generation, hanging a third personal ring with this team of outsiders would have a unique flavor.
But opposite, stand the very impressive, serene and sure of their basketball Nuggets, who proved intractable against the Timberwolves and the Suns of Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, before sweeping the Lakers of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, as revenge three years after their previous conference finals. Double MVP Nikola Jokic, who averages a triple-double in these play-offs (29.9 pts, 13.3 rebounds, 10.3 assists), scorer Jamal Murray, precious Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr illustrate the benefits of the continuity policy operated by Denver, which took the opportunity to strengthen itself, by attracting the experienced Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, rightly titled with the Lakers in 2020.
After ten days without playing, the oiled collective of the Nuggets, certainly well rested, could suffer from a lack of rhythm compared to that of the Heat carried by a momentum that could border on euphoria, despite legitimate fatigue. So suspenseful. "For those who think this series will be easy, I don't know what to say," breathed coach Michael Malone, refusing the label of favorite, before summing up: "It will be the biggest challenge of our lives."