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How the Nuggets and Heat built their way to the Finals with a patience the Knicks, and a lot of the NBA, overlooked

These NBA Finals between two franchises that aren’t traditional NBA bluebloods are about a lot of things.

A national recognition of Nikola Jokic as arguably the best player in the game, and perhaps one of the most unique in history.

An affirmation that culture (e.g. Heat culture) matters as much as, if not more than, talent.

A potential turning-of-the-page from the LeBron-Warriors era to a more open field of annual contenders.

Above all, though, it is about the value of patience.

While contender after contender cycles through coaches and player personnel like cards at a blackjack table, the Nuggets and Heat have arrived at the NBA’s showcase event precisely because they haven’t followed the paths being taken by the likes of the 76ers or Bucks or Raptors or Suns this offseason, firing coaches who had won NBA titles before and were generally well-respected in the game.

Nor did they go down the road traversed by teams such as the Nets, the Mavericks, the Lakers, the Timberwolves or most any other club trading questionable roster fits for players who raise different questions.

The Nuggets and Heat will tussle for the title because they stuck with their plans despite the many times those plans failed.

Denver failed to make the playoffs in each of Jokic’s first three seasons, and then got bounced in the next four before breaking through this year. Have you heard so much as a whisper that the two-time MVP wants out? Or that he may not be the kind of alpha every title team needs?

Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets walks back to the bench during the first half of Game Five of the Western Conference First Round NBA Playoffs against the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center on April 27, 2022 in San Francisco, California.
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Jamal Murray tore his ACL in 2021, missed all of last season and was good-not-great this season. Were other point guards available in that time that may have pushed the Nuggets further into the playoffs? (Does Kyrie Irving have an Instagram account?)

Yet, the club bided its time, didn’t freak out when an undermanned team got swept by the Suns in ’21 and dispatched in the first round by the Warriors last spring, and now is reaping the rewards of trotting out a player who’s only averaged 25.4 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.9 rpg and shot 40.5 percent from 3-point range over the course of eight playoff series.

And then there’s Michael Malone, architect of a team that has never won more than 54 games under his watch and lost in the playoffs in each of the four previous seasons despite having an MVP-worthy player in the lineup.

Bigger names were out there for the taking. Tyronn Lue. Mike D’Antoni. Tom Thibodeau.

But as anyone who watched Malone implore his team to “understand what we’re fighting for” against the Suns in Game 1 of the second round, it’s hard to imagine someone understanding the pulse of these Nuggets better than someone who has been on the bench for the past eight seasons.

To be sure, the Heat are not impulsive agents of change either.

Erik Spoelstra endured a subtle pressure campaign by none other than LeBron James to have him removed as coach to prove not only could he lead a team with some of the biggest egos in the sport to a pair of titles but also could lead a team of overachievers and undrafted talents to two Finals appearances in four years.

Head Coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat call a play during Game 7 of the 2023 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics on May 29, 2023 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
NBAE via Getty Images

Now, 15 years into what likely is shaping up as a Hall of Fame career, Spoelstra is considered one of the top tacticians in the sport, creative in his use of varying defenses and empowering in his willingness to turn the fate of a Game 7 in the conference finals to a bench player (Caleb Martin) who didn’t log a minute in Game 7 of last year’s conference finals against the same team.

The roster is overflowing with players who have been created in the Heat player development pipeline as much as discovered.

From Bam Adebayo (who averaged fewer than 24 minutes per game his first two seasons before emerging as a two-time All-Star and one of the most dynamic bigs in the NBA) to Gabe Vincent (who parlayed a pair of two-way contracts with the club into becoming a part-time starting point guard) to Max Strus (who was waived by the Celtics and Bulls and become a career 37.1-percent 3-point shooter, Miami finds ways to make the talent at their disposal better more than simply an asset to cast into a trade for the next flawed superstar.

To be fair, neither of these clubs are NBA transaction monks.

Denver has been opportunistic in adding Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to give Jokic and Murray passing targets and buffers from opposing defenses.

Gabe Vincent #2 of the Miami Heat shoots the ball during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics on May 29, 2023 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
NBAE via Getty Images

Miami famously accelerated the superteam era in the past, and Pat Riley’s handful of championship rings is always a lure, as Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry can attest.

Still, the presence of each of these clubs in the title round speaks to the idea that winning at the highest level doesn’t require a constant churn.

There’s a value in letting coaches and players try, fail and try again and again and again.

There’s a trust that comes from longevity, from fighting through heartbreaking losses and mistakes together.

No one in sports is ever a finished product, but you can only evolve by going through some stuff.

Head coach Michael Malone of the Denver Nuggets celebrates with the Western Conference Championship Trophy after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in game four of the Western Conference Finals at Arena on May 22, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
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Otherworldly talent matters, of course. But a big part of the reason Jokic and Butler and Malone and Spoelstra don’t crumble under the pressure of the playoffs is because they have disappointed before.

And now, by sticking with these players and these coaches, the Nuggets and Heat are fully formed contenders, each capable of winning this thing, or learning from not.

Today’s back page

New York Post

Read more:

⚾ Mark Canha’s big night sparks Mets to second-straight win over Phillies

🏀 VACCARO: Low-profile superstar Nikola Jokic enters NBA Finals with young Wayne Gretzky vibe

🏈 SERBY: Randall Cobb eager to help Aaron Rodgers elevate Jets any way he can: ‘Fill some voids’

⚾ Yankees’ win streak ends as offense flops in 10-inning loss to Mariners

📺 EXCLUSIVE: Shannon Sharpe leaving FS1’s ‘Undisputed’

What could have been for Knicks

Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets drives to the basket during Game 4 of the 2023 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals on May 22, 2023 at Crypto.Com Arena in Los Angeles, California.
NBAE via Getty Images

When the Nuggets make their first NBA Finals appearance and the Heat become the first No. 8 seed to play in the championship series since the 1999 Knicks, it will be obvious that these Knicks could have been there, too.

Not just because an injury to Giannis Antetokounmpo opened the door to the league’s best team being knocked out, or because the Celtics were ripe for implosion with an inexperienced head coach, or because the Knicks held home-court advantage against a Miami team without its best shooter.

It is because the Knicks could have easily acquired any of the six most important players in the Finals:

• The Knicks get a pass for passing on the league’s best player since no person could possibly imagine a below-average athlete from Serbia blossoming into a two-time MVP. But before the Nuggets selected Nikola Jokic — during a Taco Bell commercial — with the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Knicks used the 34th pick on Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early, who played 56 games in the NBA.

• Snubbing Jimmy Butler was a far greater sin. While the Knicks were busy tanking for Zion Williamson, and eyeing impending free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Butler, then a four-time All-Star, reportedly listed the Knicks as one of his preferred destinations when he demanded a trade from Minnesota before the 2018-19 season.

Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat drives to the basket during the game against the Denver Nuggets on February 13, 2023 at Miami-Dade Arena in Miami, Florida.
NBAE via Getty Images

After striking out on its top targets in the 2019 offseason, the Knicks showed no interest in signing Butler as a free agent, opting instead for an uninspired collection of short-term contracts, including Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton, Marcus Morris and Reggie Bullock.

• Carmelo Anthony was traded to New York more than a dozen years ago. He last played for the Knicks in 2017. Still, the franchise is eating the tab for needlessly overpaying for his services. A 2016 pick swap with Denver allowed the Nuggets to take star guard Jamal Murray with the seventh overall pick.

• Less than two months before being fired as Knicks president, Phil Jackson had the Knicks take seemingly ideal triangle prospect Frank Ntilikina with the eighth overall pick in 2017. Miami drafted Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo — now, a 25-year-old two-time All-Star and four-time member of the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team — with the 14th pick.

• In 2018, Scott Perry and Steve Mills ignored the chants of fans pleading for the Knicks to draft Michael Porter Jr., the uber-talented forward who had missed most of his last college season after undergoing back surgery. Instead, the Knicks took a risk on unproven 18-year-old Kevin Knox at No. 9. Shortly after future First Team All-NBA guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — Knox’s Kentucky teammate — was taken with the 11th pick, the Nuggets happily selected Porter Jr. at No. 14.

• Caleb Martin could — and maybe should — have been named Eastern Conference Finals MVP after averaging 19.3 points and shooting over 60 percent from the field against the Celtics.

Caleb Martin #16 of the Miami Heat shoots the ball during round 3 game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals 2023 NBA Playoffs against the Boston Celtics on May 29, 2023 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
NBAE via Getty Images

In 2019, the former Mountain West Player of the Year — who led Nevada to the Sweet 16 with his twin brother, Cody — went undrafted.

This postseason’s breakout star was available to all teams again in 2021 after being released by the Hornets. Martin went more than a month without being signed before Miami took a flier on him, signing Martin to a two-way contract.

— Howie Kussoy

Propped up

If you are among the cohort of fans allegedly disinterested in the Stanley Cup Final because it features two small-market teams in the Panthers and Golden Knights — which always does seem smaller than the group concerned about TV ratings — perhaps gambling can give you a reason to pay attention.

And since just betting on the outcome of the game now seems like a milquetoast way to approach these things, your attention is probably focused on props.

So, here’s five prop bets we’d recommend taking a good long look at, if you’re into such things. (Odds per DraftKings.)

Matthew Tkachuk to score 4+ goals in series (+210)

Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk (19) adjusts direction to the movement of the puck in the third period during game three of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Florida Panthers on Monday, May 22, 2023 at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Fla.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a scoreless second round, Tkachuk is on an absolute heater right now. He scored four goals in just four conference finals games, and this series should go at least six games.

He’s been Florida’s best skater all playoffs and has a knack for finding the net in overtime — the Panthers’ road to success runs through him. Plus, he’s scored nine times in 14 career games against Vegas.

Most assists in series: Jack Eichel (+900)

This just seems like a good value play. It’s a little odd that Eichel, who leads the Knights in playoff assists (12) and has played so well all postseason, is sitting at 9/1 here.

Even if you like the Panthers in the series (which, spoiler, we do), that’s a great number for a player who drives offense, plays on the power play and has had a great postseason.

Jack Eichel #9 of the Vegas Golden Knights handles the puck during the second period against the Dallas Stars in Game Six of the Western Conference Final of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 29, 2023 in Dallas, Texas.
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Most points in series: Matthew Tkachuk (+240)

Tkachuk is the favorite here and for good reason.

He’s got 21 points in 16 playoff games to lead all players from either team going into the series.

He should be in the mix to record points in every game, and unless the Golden Knights dominate the series, he’s the surest bet of the field here. It’s an obvious play, but better to get it at +240 now than +120 later.

Florida Panthers to win series (+105)

The Panthers have been underestimated all playoffs long, and this series looks like a coin flip on paper, so we’ll jump on them at plus odds.

Sergei Bobrovsky has been on an out-of-body run in nets, Tkachuk has been unbelievable and Florida is on an unbelievable run, having won three straight series as the underdog, including a sweep of the Hurricanes in the conference finals.

Could that all come to a halt against a strong Vegas team? Yes, of course. But there’s no reason to think it won’t continue.

Any player to record a hat trick in the Stanley Cup Final: Yes (+225)

It’s been a shockingly long time since a player pulled off this feat in a Cup Final, the last being Peter Forsberg for the 1996 Avalanche, so we wouldn’t put the house on this. But these are two offensive-minded teams with a few players from both sides capable of doing it, so why not root for something fun?

— Ethan Sears