The Finals: East Coast Swing vs. Rocky Mountain Way

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By Ron Johnson

We have finally arrived. After months of back and forth between the NBA and NHL, we have reached the grand finale of both. And it does seem ironic that 2023 brings us two sets of finals that we can actually feel good about. In both finals, we have the clash of ultimate underdogs and ultimate opportunists. In both finals, we got teams that were not even supposed to be there. And in both finals, we have teams that are vying for a lot of firsts in almost every category.

Starting today, we begin the final leg of the journey to immortality.

2023 NBA Finals: Denver Nuggets vs. Miami Heat

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No folks, you are not seeing a typo. You are seeing dreams become reality. One on side, you have a team that has done everything right but could not get past the hump of their competition when it mattered. On the other side, you got a team that had to literally scratch and claw its way to the finale. 

The Denver Nuggets have never been to the NBA Finals, yet they have had the tools, the talent and the skills to get themselves there. After countless postseasons as the top seed in the Western Conference, Denver has finally surpassed all expectations and now find themselves staring at the elusive championship that the franchise as well as the city has been clamoring for since the era of Mutombo.

After seeing the Avs, Rapids and Broncos hoist up their respective championships, and the Rockies even slug it out with the Red Sox in the World Series, the Nuggets feel that they are only halfway to their ultimate goal: Their First NBA Championship. Led by powerhouse Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets are now in the driver’s seat for a chance to hoist up their second first championship by the end of this series.

The Miami Heat have been here before. The only thing that has changed is that the infamous “Miami Big Three” are NOT involved in this year’s championship run. Despite being one of the last teams to get an invite to the show, Miami has shown that they already have the heart of a champion.

The Heat have played championship caliber basketball throughout the entire NBA Playoffs, and Jimmy Butler has gone from humble trash talking beginnings to first ballot MVP status with his play throughout the postseason. 

The Nuggets had to survive the fire of the Phoenix Suns with their dynamic trio of Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, followed by a sweepsational battle with LeBron James, AD and the Lost Angeles Lakers (no that is not a typo. That franchise is lost in translation) to get to their first finals.

As for Miami, they had to survive the play-in tournament against the Chicago Bulls and unleash hell against a pair of powerhouses in Milwaukee and Boston to get to grand finale. “Maybe it’s not the Finals matchup some folks wanted, but it could be the Finals matchup we deserve.

What’s wonderful about Nuggets-Heat is that either Nikola Jokic or Jimmy Butler will leave with a ring. There’s beauty to behold in the chase for the first championship, especially because there’s no guarantee either player will get this close again.” (Powell, 2023)

That is the most accurate statement you can read from any article. These Finals are special for a lot of reasons. Jokic has indeed been the workhorse for the Nuggets, while Butler has been the kid that the league has cast aside. In a season marred by controversy, stupidity and ego trips, these Finals are showing the complete opposite.

These Finals are showing that anything is indeed possible with the right formula…even a No. 1 seed facing a survivor of the Play-In Tournament. And with two of the biggest markets in the country watching intently, expect fireworks no matter how this one ends up.

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While the Mile High City is bringing its talents to South Beach, they are not the only ones bringing a little Rocky Mountain Thunder to Florida as we will have (at least in my memory) the first South Beach Bowl ever. 

While the Heat and Nuggets will do battle on the hardwood, the Florida Panthers find themselves in a place they have not seen since the 90s (their last ride was a heartbreaker to the Colorado Avalanche in The Year of The Rat).

The Panthers are back in the Stanley Cup Final, but this time it is not Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic or Patrick Roy they will be facing. Instead, they will lock up with the Vegas Golden Knights in their second attempt to hoist up Lord Stanley’s Precious Challis. 

The Panthers fought their way to these Final after overcoming a 3-1 deficit to continue showing that just because you are Presidents’ Trophy winners does not guarantee a Stanley Cup after taking down Boston in seven games.

They followed this up with a five-game drubbing of the Toronto Maple Leafs (who were most likely just as excited to be playing the in the second round if anything) and a four-game sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes (which was their first in franchise history). The Panthers are prepared for the Final due in large part to the fact that since that Game 4 loss to Boston, they have won 11 of 12 and are 6-0 in overtimes throughout the first three rounds. 

Oh, did we forget to mention that Florida is only the third lowest seeded team in the League’s history to reach the Stanley Cup Final? Montreal and Nashville are the other two. 

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This brings us to Vegas. With former Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy being hired after last season’s absence from the SCP. But this year, the Knights have been playing on all cylinders. After silencing the Winnipeg Jets in five games, they survived a shootout with the Edmonton Oilers in six games. But it was their Western Conference Final against Dallas that had everyone concerned after the Knights went up 3-0 and almost got upended once again. 

A tradition for the NHL is the touching of the conference trophies. Some teams have touched it, while others have not. Yes, it may be superstitious, but it does have value. Vegas touched the Campbell Bowl in their inaugural season which ended up with a lost in the Final against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, while Florida is letting history show its colors.

 “From 2011 through 2015, no teams touched the conference trophies. But the Pittsburgh Penguins touched the Wales Trophy in 2016 and 17, winning the Stanley Cup in both seasons. In 2008, they didn’t touch it and lost to Detroit in the Final. The Tampa Bay Lightning touched it in both of their most recent Stanley Cup wins (2020 and 2021) and their 2022 Stanley Cup Final loss to the Colorado Avalanche, who touched the Campbell Bowl.” (Wyshynski, 2023)

But this is not just about the players, the franchises, or the superstitions. It’s about the coaches as well. Panthers coach Paul Maurice, who remains the final coach in the history of the Hartford Whalers (aka Hurricanes) as well as the first coach of Carolina in 1997 is looking for his first Stanley Cup as his Hurricanes came up short in 2002 to the Detroit Red Wings.

As for Cassidy, the head coach of the Knights gets a second chance at immortality after having it snatched from him in 2019 by the ‘Gloria’ loving St. Louis Blues.

So there you have it. Two series with massive implications for three cities. On one side, you have the NBA Finals in which Jimmy Butler has a chance to erase the thoughts of the Miami Big Three Era, while Jokic has a chance to add the Nuggets to that list of Mile High Champions alongside Manning, Sakic, Mackinnon and Pickens.

On the other side, you have a franchise that is in its second attempt to hoist the Cup after coming up short in its previous campaign against another franchise in its second attempt to hoist the Cup after coming up short its previous campaign. Denver. Miami. Vegas. You could not ask for a more fitting ending to the NBA and NHL season.

Either way, we will have NEW World Champions on both sides. But these two series will indeed leave an indelible mark on the game either way. Can the Nuggets get their first? Can Jimmy get his first? Can the Knights finish the assignment? Can the Panthers avenge The Rat of ’96? 

Enough talking. In the infamous words of the late, great Mills Lane: LET’S GET IT ON!

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References

Powell, S. (2023, May 31). 2023 NBA Finals Preview: Nuggets, Heat take unique paths to Finals stage. Retrieved from NBA.com: https://www.nba.com/news/2023-nba-finals-preview-nuggets-heat

Wyshynski, G. (2023, May 30). Golden Knights won’t touch Western Conference Trophy. Retrieved from ESPN: https://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/37760178/vegas-golden-knights-stanley-cup-2023-trophy-superstition

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