Denver Nuggets win NBA Finals for first title
DENVER – It took 56 years and 38 play-off appearances for the basketball team nestled in the high plains just east of the Rocky Mountains to finally reach the peak of its sport.
It took an unheralded centre from Serbia who turned into the most formidable player in the game and a Canadian point guard who found himself again after a long and arduous recovery from a career-threatening knee injury.
It took patience, collaboration and discipline born of trying, failing and learning how to keep climbing just a bit higher.
The Denver Nuggets are now National Basketball Association (NBA) champions, clinching the first title in franchise history on Monday night on their home court at Ball Arena.
Led by centre Nikola Jokic and point guard Jamal Murray, and bolstered by the rest of an indefatigable eight-man rotation, the Nuggets beat the Miami Heat with a 94-89 victory in Game 5 to win the series 4-1.
Jokic, who had 28 points and 16 rebounds, was also named the Most Valuable Player of the Finals.
“I got news for everybody out there,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said, as the home crowd erupted.
“We’re not satisfied with one! We want more! We want more!
“In this game you go from a nobody to an upstart, and you go from an upstart to a winner and a winner to a contender and a contender to a champion.
“The last step after a champion is to be a dynasty.”
The clinching game was neither pretty nor easy. Through the first three quarters, Denver struggled to make three-point shots, convert free throws, and turned the ball over carelessly. The Heat had a seven-point lead at half-time and led by a point after the third quarter.
But in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets found the resolve to take the title. With about 10min 59sec remaining, Murray hit a three-pointer – only Denver’s third of the game – to give the team a four-point lead. It was their largest lead since the first quarter.
Later, Murray struck again to give the Nuggets a five-point lead.
And with less than 30 seconds remaining, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stole a pass from Jimmy Butler – who led the Heat with 21 points – towards Max Strus and made two free throws to give Denver a three-point lead.
There are now only 10 teams in the league that have never won an NBA championship. Five have made it to the Finals and lost, including the Phoenix Suns, who have come up short three times, most recently in 2021.
But the Nuggets had never gotten that far, at least not in the NBA. Not since 1976, when they lost to the New York Nets in the American Basketball Association finals, had they reached a championship series.
The long drought helps explain why the Nuggets were underestimated all season, even after they took hold of first place in the Western Conference in December and never let go.
People wondered if Jokic, despite his superlative play, could lead a team this far – after all, he had never taken the Nuggets past the Conference Finals.
Some wondered if Murray would ever return to the elite level he had been playing at in 2021, when a knee injury just before the play-offs set him and Denver on a two-year journey to fully reset.
He had 14 points, eight rebounds and eight assists on Monday.
Along the way, some role players found their stride, even if they mostly went unnoticed.
Caldwell-Pope, whom the Nuggets traded for last off-season, added defence, shooting and championship experience. For a few play-off games, he brought in the ring he had won in 2020 with the Los Angeles Lakers and let his teammates hold it. None of them have one.
Gordon, whom the Nuggets traded for in March 2021, happily became a defensive stopper after being the offensive star of the Orlando Magic.
Bruce Brown provided offensive sparks; Jeff Green added veteran calm; Christian Braun, a rookie, offered a youthful fearlessness that would pay off in the finals.
“It was amazing effort by the team,” Jokic said.
“It was an ugly game. We couldn’t make shots. But at the end we figured it out, I’m just happy we won the game.
“It’s good. The job is done and we can go home now.”
Indeed, they can, sailing into the sunset after a long season. - NYTIMES, AFP