The NBA Finals are set: It’s the Heat and the Nuggets for the Larry O’Brien Trophy

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Ashley Landis/AP
Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone holds the conference championship trophy after Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Final series against the Los Angeles Lakers Monday, May 22, 2023, in Los Angeles. Denver won 113-111 to win the series.

By Tim Reynolds/AP

Cancel that flight plan, Denver. Turns out, the NBA Finals are starting in the Mile High City after all.

And Jimmy Butler was proven right.

Finally, we have a title-series matchup: The Miami Heat, champions of the Eastern Conference even after getting in as only the No. 8 seed, will take on the Western Conference champion Nuggets in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The series starts in Denver on Thursday night.

The Heat got there by winning Game 7 of the East title series in Boston on Monday night. It came one year to the day after the Celtics won a Game 7 on Miami's floor to win the East title a year ago.

"Next year, we will have enough and we’re going to be right back in the same situation, and we’re going to get it done," Butler vowed that night.

The Heat made those words prophetic.

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Michael Dwyer/AP
Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler, left, dunks as Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown defends during the second half in Game 7 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals Monday, May 29, 2023, in Boston.

The Nuggets had a flight to Boston tentatively scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, just in case they would be facing the Celtics — who would have had home-court advantage in the title series.

But the Heat had other ideas, won the deciding game to avoid becoming the first team in NBA history to fall after claiming a 3-0 series lead, and Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets now await. The Heat are in the finals for the seventh time and seeking their fourth championship; the Nuggets are in the finals for the first time in franchise history.

“When we wake up tomorrow morning, we know who we’re playing,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said Monday, a few hours before the Celtics and Heat tipped off in Game 7. “We know who we’re preparing for and we can kind of turn the page and really focus in on that. The Eastern Conference finals has been a hell of a series.”

Malone will try to win an NBA title for the first time, and if Denver prevails he’ll become the 36th coach in league history to win a championship. Miami’s Erik Spoelstra is seeking his third title as a head coach; if he wins it, he’d join only Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, Heat President Pat Riley, John Kundla, Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr as three-time champion coaches.

Denver hasn’t faced any real trouble yet in these playoffs. The Nuggets are 12-3 in the playoffs, winners of their last six games — and grabbed control of their matchups against Minnesota in Round 1, Phoenix in Round 2 and the Lakers in the West finals right away.

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Ashley Landis/AP
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is mobbed by teammates after accepting the series MVP trophy in after Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Final series Monday, May 22, 2023, in Los Angeles.

Two-time MVP Jokic averaged a triple-double against both the Suns and the Lakers, and enters these finals averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists per game. One of his signature moves of late has been pointing to his ring finger while looking at his family; he’s now four wins away from the piece of jewelry he wants most.

“Nikola is still a humble, selfless person and he cares about home, he cares about family, he cares about his horses -- the guy is just who he is,” Malone said. “I couldn’t have more respect for him as a man because of that.”

A week ago, Miami was in position to do what Denver did — get to the finals with a sweep. It’s almost like the Heat forgot they were a 44-38 team that needed two play-in games just to get into the playoffs; they ousted No. 1 overall seed Milwaukee in Round 1, got past New York in Round 2 and then avenged last season’s loss to Boston in the East finals by somehow going onto the Celtics’ home floor and winning a Game 7 to avoid the permanent stench of being the first team in NBA history to waste a 3-0 series lead.

“Sometimes you have to suffer for the things that you really want,” Spoelstra said. “And this group has shown fortitude. ... We still have more to do.”

It was a hellish week, for certain. But the Heat got there, just the second No. 8 seed to ever make the finals.

“Everybody rallied around each other,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said.

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Ashley Landis/AP
Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, right, is hugged by head coach Michael Malone after Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Final series against the Los Angeles Lakers Monday, May 22, 2023, in Los Angeles.

Miami has three players with championships – Udonis Haslem has been part of all three Heat titles, Kevin Love won a championship with Cleveland and Kyle Lowry got a ring with Toronto. The Nuggets have one champion on their roster; Denver’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got one with the Lakers at the NBA’s restart bubble in 2020 against the Heat.

Also back from that Heat finals team: Butler, Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Gabe Vincent. The only Denver player besides Caldwell-Pope with finals experience is Jeff Green, who played in the title series alongside Love with Cleveland in 2018.

So, most players will be seeking their first ring. Haslem is trying to end his career with a fourth, and Lowry is among the lucky few who are trying to smudge the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the second time.

He remembers how long it took him in 2019, after the Raptors won their title, to start thinking about winning his next one.

“Maybe like the day after,” Lowry said. “And every champion, every NBA champion, would tell you this: There’s a high that you never have felt and you want that high again. And there’s nothing like that.”

Denver swept both games against Miami in the regular season. And both sides will inevitably say that those games won’t matter much starting Thursday.

“The Heat are playing an unbelievable high level,” Malone said. “Jimmy Butler, what he’s been doing since Round 1 against Milwaukee, continued that Round 2 against New York and now what he’s doing against Boston is just historical in nature. And Erik Spoelstra … obviously Spo is one of the best coaches in the league, someone who I have a tremendous amount of respect for as a coach but also just as a friend.”