Denver Nuggets Sweeps Lakers Toward NBA Finals

LOS ANGELES — The Denver Nuggets advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history after completing a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals with a 113-111 win Monday.

The Nuggets took the last breath away from the Lakers, who kept their season alive for weeks after it was deemed finished. “I think we fought as hard as we could,” said Lakers coach Darvin Ham.

Now, Denver awaits the winner of the Eastern Conference finals, where the Miami Heat won 3-0 series over the Boston Celtics. Game 4 in the East is Tuesday in Miami.

For the Nuggets, Monday's victory was the culmination of years of process by which their core players have grown together, weathered challenging injuries, and faced questions about their ability to even compete in the West. Their best player, center Nikola Jokic, won the league's Most Valuable Player Award twice, but could only reach the conference finals once.

Jokic was named the MVP of the Western Conference finals.

Denver lost star guard Jamal Murray in April 2021, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Nuggets coach Michael Malone said the day after his injury Murray tearfully asked if the Nuggets would trade him, calling himself “damaged goods”.

“I hugged him,” Malone said. “I said: ‘No, you are ours. We love you. We'll help you come back, and you'll be a better player for it.'”

Murray missed the remainder of that season and throughout the 2021–22 season. In this year's playoffs, Denver's patience has paid off.

Murray was starting to look like a player before his injury and Jokic continues to play at an elite level, perfectly complemented by Denver's talented roleplayers.

The Nuggets climbed to first place in the West in December and have never fallen from the top spot. In the playoffs, they defeated the Timberwolves, 4-1, in the first round and the Phoenix Suns, 4-2 in the second. Despite Denver's dominance throughout the season, the oddsmakers were not backing them to win the championship. The Nuggets take it.

“We're underdogs,” said guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “We don't get enough credit for what we do.” He continued: “It's not much talked about, we take it personally. We just used that energy, continuing to prove everyone wrong.”

Even after the first two rounds, some considered the Lakers dangerous enough to be the team to finally beat the Nuggets.

That belief in the Lakers only blossomed during the playoffs.

For a while, the Lakers looked devastated by roster issues and injuries to their stars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

They started the season with a 2-10 record. In December, as the Nuggets strengthened their position over the West, the Lakers finished 13th.

Guard Russell Westbrook, who struggled with the Lakers last season, is still not fit and was pulled from the starting lineup after three games. Davis injured his leg on December 16 against the Nuggets and missed 20 games while he recovered. Shortly after Davis returned, James missed several games with a foot injury that several doctors he consulted said required surgery.

But changes to the trading deadline in February helped. The Lakers shipped Westbrook and brought in role players – Jarred Vanderbilt, D'Angelo Russell, and Malik Beasley. They also traded for Rui Hachimura in January.

They moved up to seventh in the West at the end of the regular season, and beat Minnesota in overtime in the play-in tournament to secure the seventh seed for the playoffs. In the first round, they silenced a boisterous Memphis side, who had spent most of the season in the top three in the West, beating them, 4-2. Then they beat the defending champion Golden State Warriors, 4-2, dominating them in the second-round decider game.

But the Nuggets turned out to be a different type of opponent. They are more cohesive, less dramatic, and stronger in the center than Memphis and Golden State.

In the Lakers' first two series, their opponents lambasted them verbally, whether it was Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks calling James, 38, old, or the Warriors accusing them of failing on a profitable call. The Nuggets took a different approach, showing respect off the court until the very end.

“I wouldn't say that I was scared, but I was worried,” Jokic said after Denver's Game 3 win. “Because they have LeBron on the other side, and he is capable of everything.”

James looks more fallible in this series than ever before. He went 0 for 10 from 3 points in the first two games, made a costly error late in Game 1 and was taunted for missing a dunk in Game 2. He has dragged the team through Davis' postseason inconsistency so far, but the Nuggets are not wanting to. Don't let him do it again.