DENVER — Confetti flying in Denver. The Nuggets pass the NBA championship trophy.
Scenes that, for decades, seemed impossible, then began to feel inevitable, finally turned into reality on Monday night.
The Nuggets beat the Miami Heat 94-89 in a lousy, frantic Game 5 that did nothing to derail Nikola Jokic, who rescued his teammate with 28 points and 16 rebounds on a night when nothing else seemed to work.
Jokic won the Bill Russell trophy as NBA Finals MVP—an award that certainly means more to him than the two overall MVPs he won in 2021 and '22.
“We didn't do it for ourselves, we did it for the man next to us,” said Jokic. “And that's why it (means) even more.”
The Denver determiner is a terrible job.
Unable to shake the tenacious Heat or the nerves of the closing night, the Nuggets missed 20 of their first 22 3-pointers. They missed seven of their first 13 free throws. They led by seven points, before Miami's Jimmy Butler left, scoring eight straight points to give the Heat a one-point lead with 2:45 left.
Butler made two more free throws with 1:58 left to help Miami regain a one-point lead. Then, Bruce Brown got the offensive rebound and tip-in to give the Nuggets the lead once and for all.
Down by three with 15 seconds left, Butler pushed up a 3, but missed. Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each made two free throws to put the game out of reach and claim the title for Denver.
Butler finished with 21 points.
Ugly as it is, the aftermath is something the Nuggets and all their fans agree is beautiful. There are fireworks explosions outside the Ball Arena at the final bell. Denver is the home of the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the first time in the franchise's 47 years in the league.
“It was ugly and we couldn't make a shot but in the end we found the answer,” said Jokic. “I'm happy we won the game.”
The Heat, as coach Erik Spoelstra promised, are a tough and tenacious group. But their shots weren't great either. Bam Adebayo had 20 for the Heat, but Miami shot 34% from the floor and 25% from 3. Until Butler left, he was 2 of 13 for eight points.
The Heat, who survived losing in the play-in tournament and are only the second No. 1 seed. The 8 who made it to the final, insisted that they didn't get the consolation prize.
They played like they expected to win, and for a while during this game, which was completed by the players plunging to the floor as a cute looking jump shot, it looked like they were going to.
The Nuggets, who have scored 37.6% from 3 in the series, are shooting 18% in this series. They had 14 turnovers. Even with clutch shots from Brown and Caldwell-Pope, they were just 13 of 23 from the line.
The tone of the game was set with 2:51 left in the first quarter, when Jokic committed his second foul and joined Aaron Gordon on the bench. Jeff Green and Jamal Murray, who finished with 14 points and eight assists, also joined them there.
That kept the Nuggets tentative on both sides of the court for the rest of the half. Somehow, after shooting 6.7% of 3 — worst first half in finals history (10 shots minimum), they trailed only by seven.
True to the Nuggets personality, they keep pressing, going after their opponents in waves and finding ways to win games that go against their type. Their beautiful game turns into a slugfest, but they still find the answer.
“That's why basketball is a fun sport,” said Jokic. “It's a living thing. You can't say, ‘This is going to happen.' There are so many factors. I'm happy we won the game.”
It feels almost perfect that an unknown and once fat second-round draft pick from Serbia will 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 sales. and t-shirts.
During their nearly five-decade stay in the league, the Nuggets have been the epitome of the NBA's playful – sometimes entertaining backbencher, adorned by rainbows on their jerseys and marked by colorful characters on the floor and benches. But never good enough to break through against the biggest stars and better teams to their east, west and south.
Prior to this season, only two teams founded before 1980 – the Nuggets and the Clippers – had not been to the NBA Finals. The Nuggets took their name from that list, then joined San Antonio as the second real ABA team to capture the NBA's biggest prize. Two other ABA players, the Pacers and Nets, had reached the finals but lost.
It was the Joker who developed into a do-everything force — even before Monday, he was the first player to record 500 points, 250 rebounds and 150 assists in a single postseason — that made the Nuggets a team to watch. Not everyone does. The shift to win doesn't change Denver's location on the map – in a strange time zone in the overpass area – and it doesn't change everyone's view of the Nuggets.
Even in Denver.
There's no question that this has always been the Broncos' kind of first town. No Denver win will beat the day in 1998 when John Elway broke through and the team's owner, Pat Bowlen, held the Lombardi Trophy aloft and declared: “This one's for John!”
But this one? No need to sit too much in the back. This is for every Dan (Issel), David (Thompson), Doug (Moe) or Dikembe (Mutombo) who has ever flopped or missed out on the newer, shinier model with more shine and more stars.
For the first time in 47 seasons, no one in the NBA has shone brighter than the Nuggets.
“The fans in this city are amazing,” said team owner Stan Kroenke. “It means a lot to us to get this done.”