By Eddie Pells
Confetti flying in Denver. The Nuggets sharing hugs while passing around the NBA championship trophy.
Those scenes that, for almost a half-century, seemed impossible, then more recently started feeling inevitable, finally turned into reality Monday night.
The Nuggets outlasted the Miami Heat 94-89 in an ugly, frantic Game 5 that did nothing to derail Nikola Jokic, who bailed out his teammates with 28 points and 16 rebounds on a night when nothing else seemed to work.
Jokic became the first player in history to lead the league in points (600), rebounds (269) and assists (190) in a single postseason. Not surprisingly, he won the Bill Russell trophy as the NBA Finals MVP — an award that certainly has more meaning to him than the two overall MVPs he won in 2021 and ’22 and the one that escaped him this year.
“We are not in it for ourselves, we are in it for the guy next to us,” Jokic said. “And that’s why this (means) even more.”
Denver's clincher was a gruesome grind.
Unable to shake the tenacious Heat or their own closing-night jitters, the Nuggets missed 20 of their first 22 3-pointers. They missed seven of their first 13 free throws. They overcame that to take a late seven-point lead, only to see Miami’s Jimmy Butler go off. He scored eight straight points to give the Heat a one-point lead with 2:45 left.
Butler made two free throws with 1:58 remaining to help Miami regain a one-point lead. Then, Bruce Brown got an offensive rebound and tip-in to give the Nuggets an edge they wouldn't give up.
Trailing by three with 15 seconds left, Butler jacked up a 3, but missed it. Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made two free throws each down the stretch to clinch the title for Denver.
Butler finished with 21 points.
“Those last three or four minutes felt like a scene out of a movie,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Two teams in the center of the ring throwing haymaker after haymaker, and it’s not necessarily shot making. It’s the efforts.”
Grueling as it was, the aftermath was something the Nuggets and their fans could all agree was beautiful. There were fireworks exploding outside Ball Arena at the final buzzer. Denver is the home of the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in the franchise’s 47 years in the league.
“The fans in this town are unbelievable,” said team owner Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Colorado Avalanche, the team that won its third Stanley Cup last year. “It means a lot to us to get this done.”
The Heat were, as Spoelstra promised, a gritty, tenacious bunch. But their shooting wasn’t great, either. Miami shot 34% from the floor and 25% from 3. Until Butler went off, he was 2 for 13 for eight points. Bam Adebayo finished with 20 points.
The Heat, who survived a loss in the play-in tournament and became only the second No. 8 seed to make the finals, insisted they weren’t into consolation prizes.
They played like they expected to win, and for a while during this game, which was settled as much by players diving onto the floor as sweet-looking jump shots, it looked like they would.
The Nuggets, who came in shooting 37.6% from 3 for the series, shot 18% in this one. They committed 14 turnovers.
The tone was set with 2:51 left in the first quarter, when Jokic got his second foul and joined Aaron Gordon on the bench. Jeff Green and Jamal Murray, who finished with 14 points and eight assists on an off night, joined them there, too.
It made the Nuggets tentative on both sides of the court for the rest of the half. Somehow, after shooting 6.7% from 3 — the worst first half in the history of the finals (10-shot minimum) they only trailed by seven.
True to the Nuggets' personality, they kept pressing, came at their opponent in waves and figured out how to win a game that went against their type. Their beautiful game turned into a slugfest, but they figured it out nonetheless.
“What I was most proud about is, throughout the game, if your offense is not working and your shots are not falling, you have to dig in on the defensive end,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
It felt almost perfect that an unheralded and once-chubby second-round draft pick from Serbia would be the one to lift Denver to the top of a league that, for decades, has been dominated by superstars, first-round draft picks and players who lead the world in sneaker and jersey sales.
Over their near five-decade stay in the league, the Nuggets have been the epitome of a lovable NBA backbencher – at times entertaining, adorned by rainbows on their uniforms and headlined by colorful characters on the floor and bench. But never quite good enough to break through against the biggest stars and better teams to the east, west and south of them.
Before this season, there were only two teams founded before 1980 – the Nuggets and Clippers – that had never been to an NBA Finals. The Nuggets took their name off that list, then joined San Antonio as the second original ABA team to capture the NBA’s biggest prize. The other two ABAers, the Pacers and Nets, have been to the finals but lost.
It was the Joker’s blossoming into a do-everything force that made the Nuggets a team to watch. Not everybody did. A shift to winning couldn’t change Denver’s location on the map – in a weird time zone in flyover territory – and it didn’t shift everyone’s view of the Nuggets.
Even in Denver.
There’s little doubt that this has always been a Broncos-first sort of town. No single Denver victory will outshine the day in 1998 when John Elway broke through and that team’s owner, Pat Bowlen, held the Lombardi Trophy high and declared: “This one’s for John!”
But this one? It won't take a back seat to much. It’s for every Dan (Issel), David (Thompson), Doug (Moe) or Dikembe (Mutombo) who ever came up short or got passed over for a newer, shinier model with more glitter and more stars.
For the first time in 47 seasons, nobody in the NBA shines brighter than the Nuggets.
“You live vicariously through these guys,” said Denver great LaPhonso Ellis, as he pointed to the big scoreboard announcing the Nuggets as champions. “And to see that there, ‘2023 NBA Champions’ here in Denver, that's so cool, and I'm honored to be a part of it."