Nikola Jokic is now an NBA Championship winner. The Denver Nuggets made history on Monday by defeating the Miami Heat over five games in the NBA Finals, sealing the title with a 94-89 home win. The Nuggets have now removed themselves from the list of teams never to have won a championship, which stands at 10 after a night of glory in Colorado.
The Larry O’Brien Trophy has finally landed in a city with 47 years of basketball tradition. The long-awaited championship was Denver’s thank you to a towering European star with sad eyes and an incomparable style. The Serbian center collected his ring after an impressive run in the playoffs: 600 points, 209 rebounds and 190 assists. He led the way in each category, which also earned him the NBA Finals MVP trophy, which went some way to settling the debate as to whether he should have won the regular-season award as well. A championship ring has now resolved that argument in his favor.
Jokic reached the NBA summit almost a decade after being selected 41st overall in the 2014 draft. At the time, the Serbian was asleep at his parents’ house. Those following the draft in the United States didn’t hear his name announced because a Taco Bell commercial was airing. This has been a finals series of vindications for several Denver players. Perhaps the most emotional was that of Jamal Murray, who wept tears of joy. In 2021, he tore the patellar tendon in his left knee. After surgery, he embarked on a long recovery process that sidelined him until October 2022. On Monday, he turned the final page on that chapter of his career.
To make history, the Nuggets had to flip the script in Game 5. Despite Denver winning three games in the series by double-digit margins, Miami had been a closing machine. Before tonight, the Heat had scored 114 fourth-quarter points to Denver’s 94. Denver also had to neutralize Jimmy Butler and prove that defenses win championships too.
The five games seemed to consume the volcanic Butler. After earning a reputation as a miracle worker, the Miami star barely appeared in a game where the series was at stake. He missed two free throws at the start, which seemed to be the harbinger of a quiet night. Used to playing on the front foot, Butler instead opted on several occasions to pass to his open teammates in search of three-pointers. Over three quarters he scored only eight points, leaving his team’s offense in the hands of Bam Adebayo (20), Max Strus (12) and Kyle Lowry, who scored four three-pointers and missed another with less than a minute on the clock, a shot that could have changed the course of the night.
Miami was up on the scoreboard for the first three quarters. They started like a hurricane, remaining faithful to the idea that they could extend an epic run that began with a historic feat — they were only the second eight-seeded in history to reach the NBA Finals. As a marker of the sheer effort Miami have put in this season, Strus was playing his 105th game. It had been 13 years, going back to the Lakers-Celtics final of 2010, since a player had seen that much action in a single season.
Denver seemed stunned by the frenetic pace imposed by Miami. They gave up three turnovers in the first few minutes, which turned into 14 over the entire game to Miami’s eight. But the Nuggets were warming up, as were the 19,500 spectators in Ball Arena, fired up by the team’s mascot, a mountain lion named Rocky. In addition to Jokic, the Nuggets have the NBA’s star non-playing entertainer. The acrobat has been with the team since the Dikembe Mutombo years. Last year it was revealed that his salary is $625,000 a year. Rocky keeps the Denver crowd from falling into a beer-and-hot-dog slumber with juggling tricks and back-to-back baskets from half court.
A Murray three-pointer tied the game in the third quarter, forcing Butler into survival mode in what would be the final few minutes of his season. He landed a three-pointer that put Miami four points clear of the Nuggets going into the fourth quarter. Seconds later, he dribbled to the corner to attempt another shot between double coverage. The referees called a foul. Nuggets coach Mark Malone asked to review the play because he believed Butler had looked for contact. With ice in his veins and nearly 20,000 people against him, he made three free throws. Butler was defeated in the same way he had played every game of these playoffs, fighting tooth and nail until the final minute, scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter.
A new dynasty in the West?
When the series began on June 1, it did so without arousing much interest in the United States. Perhaps because NBA fans would have preferred a final with the losers of the two conference clashes, the Celtics and the Lakers, who have more pedigree in basketball history, and Boston and Los Angeles are much more iconic in the NBA than tiny Denver and chaotic Miami. But the 2023 Finals have given clear indications that a new dynasty could be on its way.
“You want more? You want more?” Malone shouted to the fans after the trophy was raised. The crowd had not left their seats, and confetti was raining down. On a makeshift platform on the court, the franchise that started out playing in the ABA, the rebel basketball league, was wondering if this is the first of many. Jokic is 28. Aaron Gordon is 27. Murray is 26 and Michael Porter is 24. All have at least two more years on their contracts, raising questions about whether a new giant was born on Monday in the West.
There was also a nod to those Nuggets who played for the nine seasons of the ABA’s existence, a competition that innovated with three-pointers, allowed a more physical style, and used a tricolor ball. David “Skywalker” Thompson, one of the legends of that team, was on hand to perform an honorary free throw. He missed, but everyone remembers him for a 73-point game in the late 1980s. Only Kobe Bryant and Wilt Chamberlain have scored more in a single game. But of course, Skywalker never delivered a title. The Nuggets of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have now closed the circle.
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