The tragic thing about the Miami Heat making the 2023 NBA Finals is that Jimmy Butler will never be able to enjoy it. The Heat were a virus — a collection of veterans and second-rounders, slinking through the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, exploiting the weaknesses of every team they encountered and laying them in the dirt, one after another. Milwaukee, sporting the best record in the league, couldn’t manage with Giannis physically compromised on the court, so the Heat popped them in the mouth and strolled past them, curled up in a heap. The New York Knicks have to be admired for making the playoffs despite playing like it’s 2003, but… they do play like it’s 2003, and you can’t isolate and two-point-bucket your way to the title anymore. If the Boston Celtics were any softer, they would be the Minnesota Timberwolves. On paper, they won every game. But in real life, Jayson Tatum is a technocrat’s dream; an amalgam of skills searching for a spirit, while Jimmy Butler is a true hooper forged from American grit. 

Jimmy didn’t want to come in second again. He wanted to shock the damn world and take the title in his own perfect manner, clawing up from the eighth seed and devouring someone who barely saw it coming. But I hope that, someday, he can look into his heart and see that he has done god’s work this year when he and the Heat put this bloodless Celtics squad in the dirt forever. However their season ended, the Heat were alive out there every night, playing each and every game like no one expected them to win, which approximately no one did. 

Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat exchanges words with Grant Williams of the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals at TD Garden on May 19, 2023, in Boston, Massachusetts.

Adam Glanzman/Getty

The image from this run — from this playoffs, really — that will flicker in the collective consciousness forever is Grant Williams, Celtics forward, playing for the NBA’s all-time squishy squad, deciding that Jimmy Butler could be cowed into submission with tough-guy antics, and immediately paying the price when JB woke up and turned his entire squad into slush all at the same time. For a second there, when he made two threes in a row, got that BS foul call on a three and calmly made all three shots, I thought he might do it again. I’m sure he did, as well.

But the Miami Heat, risen from the grave and playing on pure bloodlust, could not beat everyone with strength of will. The Denver Nuggets were just better. They were better than everyone, all season, right up till a little dip in April, all but forgotten when they came into the postseason and clobbered the Timberwolves. Reason alone suggested they would beat the Suns and the Lakers as well: they were, after all, better at basketball all year, but people just couldn’t envision it. 

Or maybe they didn’t want to? The Suns employed Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, basketball stars since youth, raised for this moment all their lives, seeking immortal brand status and posting about their beefs with teens on the internet. They make for easy copy. Easy drama. They talk to Stephen A., and always seem like they could leave their teams at any available second. Sports is a 24/7 information omniplex now, and those are the kinds of guys who feed the beast as a matter of habit. 

LeBron and the Lakers, on the other hand, are the beast. LeBron, god bless him, is the best NBA player since Jordan. He is also a one-man content factory, grinding out attention for the brand game after game, night after night, post after post. Earlier this year, when former NFL player and current free agent talking head Shannon Sharpe was beefing with Ja Morant’s father, LeBron took a second to support Sharpe in the press, letting everyone know that Shannon was his guy. At the time, Sharpe was on TV every morning with Skip Bayless, a vicious little rat man who hates on LeBron in a professional capacity. LeBron is not dumb, of course. He knows the Fox Sports play-acted sports rageathon depends on someone to sit across from Skip, that everyone is a character in a play about LeBron or something Lebron-related, but he plays along anyway, never breaking character, because he knows that’s what the machine wants.

Nikola Jokić, on the other hand… 

…seemed almost too nonplussed for a guy who just won the title. He doesn’t do press as a hobby. He doesn’t live in America any more than he has to. His personal passion is Dan Patch-style horse cart racing, and he doesn’t do histrionics or trade demands or anything he doesn’t have to in service to the beast. I don’t want people thinking one approach or another is superior. We all operate in the way that we think will itch the parts of our brain we feel tingling, and that’s fine. But it clearly drove popular sports media nuts when someone so unbothered became the league’s de facto standard-bearer over the last two years or so. He’s just amazing at basketball and leading a team that plays like the Warriors if you swapped Steph’s prolificacy into Draymond’s skillset. Who wants that?

But Christ, was he amazing. This is one of the great playoff runs of all time — a big man doing everything, night after night, leading his team to beatdown after beatdown, while never appearing to push his clutch into third gear. The passing, you know about. It’s a miracle, one of the most beautiful things in the history of the game, a skill that flips the composition of the entire court, leaving everyone who tries to defend the Nuggets a step behind at all times. But he has also come to be a sui generis scorer, an efficiency savant from 12 feet and under with unreal touch, a wrist action that is so smooth that it registers as uncanny when you see it in action, like Jordan’s fadeaway or Curry’s pull-up jump shot. The ball leaves his hands like a leaf getting blown off a tree. 

The team that has coagulated around him is so strange and perfect. Jamal Murray was born to be an NBA guard, but he somehow forgets all that when he is on the court with Jokić. He is liberated by deferment, playing as a collaborator instead of a battering ram sweating bullets and barking at everyone on the court. Their two-man game is deadly and unpredictable: two elite scoring and passing threats operating on the same astral plane. 


Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić reaches for the ball against Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo and forward Jimmy Butler during the second half in Game Five of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado, on June 12, 2023.

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports/Getty

Watching Aaron Gordon become a perfect piece is exhilarating. Gordon is an electric athlete with an assemblage of skills that don’t quite make him a productive offensive engine — the kind of guy that gets written off as a sub-star or eternal prospect. But the Nuggets didn’t need a do-everything guy. They needed a guy who could crash the boards, keep the ball moving, and defend at and beyond his size, and Gordon did all this night after night, filling a Draymond-sized pocket for a team that has everything else. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope won his second title with Denver, and made the Lakers, whose front office is addicted to rash, short-term moves, look stupid for leaving him behind in one of their many underwhelming post-bubble shots at relevance. Michael Porter Jr. will leave the Nuggets someday, having been told since he was 12 years old that NBA superstardom is his destiny, but for now, he is performing well in his real role as a “third offensive force.”

They will be together next year, flush with championship confidence, ready to overwhelm talking heads and squash everyone in their path with an indifferent look on their face, once again. We might be looking at the new Spurs — a squad of weirdos and misfits led by an immaculate press-shy big man, brought together by the demon of professionalism and a non-interest in anything but each other and the task at hand. Tremble in fear.