Miami: The Heat have the chance to make history when the NBA Finals kick off on Thursday, facing a well-rested Denver Nuggets squad that is uninterested in letting the Heat's Cinderella story go any further.
Miami would be the first eighth seed to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy after opening their improbable playoff run with a compelling 4-1 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, who had boasted the best record in the league.
Only the second eighth seed to reach the championship series after the New York Knicks 24 years ago, they almost squandered their 3-0 head start over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals before clinching Game 7 on the road on Monday.
"I know the work that we all put into it so I know what we're capable of - but nobody's satisfied, we haven't done anything," Eastern Conference Finals MVP Jimmy Butler told reporters.
"We don't play just to win the Eastern Conference, we play to win the whole thing."
The six-time All-Star, who produced a game-high 28 points on Monday, has been a key figure in an injury-battered Heat rotation, with star guard Tyler Herro reportedly eying a return after fracturing his hand in the first round.
"Not surprising that they would win a playoff series and compete moving forward, but no matter what their team looked like, losing key players, I wouldn’t pick that team to wind up as one of the last two standing," ABC NBA Finals analyst Mark Jackson told reporters.
"It says a lot about their competitive spirit, their culture."
They face the ultimate test against twice MVP Nikola Jokic's Nuggets, who cruised through the opening two rounds before embarrassing the Los Angeles Lakers in a four-game sweep to win the West more than a week ago.
But while oddsmakers put the Nuggets at a mile-high advantage to collect the franchise's first title, coach Michael Malone told reporters he expects the series to be "the biggest challenge of our lives."
"Forget the eighth seed stuff - they beat Milwaukee four to one," said Malone.
"You get to the NBA Finals, it's not about seeding anymore. And for those that are thinking that this is going to be an easy series - I don't even know what to say to you."
The NBA Finals kick off on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET (0030 GMT on Friday) at Ball Arena. --Reuters
Last 10 winners of the NBA Finals ahead of the 2023 Finals series between Denver and Miami starting here on Thursday:
2022: Golden State Warriors
2021: Milwaukee Bucks
2020: Los Angeles Lakers
2019: Toronto Raptors
2018: Golden State Warriors
2017: Golden State Warriors
2016: Cleveland Cavaliers
2015: Golden State Warriors
2014: San Antonio Spurs
2013: Miami Heat -- AFP