September 21, 2023

Nikola Jokic, Nuggets secure franchise’s first NBA title

In a Game 5 rock fight, the Denver Nuggets made it to the NBA mountaintop from the foothills of the Rockies, winning their first-ever championship and setting Nikola Jokic’s legacy as an all-timer in stone.

Battling foul trouble and a Miami Heat team that refused to die, Jokic amassed 28 points, 16 rebounds and four assists in a 94-89 win in front of the 19,537 vociferous fans that filled Ball Arena. Jokic received all the votes in the final MVP voting, capping a historic playoff run for the 2-foot-tall Serb and his Denver teammates.

A two-time regular season MVP and now champion, Jokic joins a heady roster of basketball greats second only to Bob Pettit, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan , LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“The job is done,” Jokic said on the postgame broadcast, humble as ever. “We can go home now.”

The Nuggets led by seven late in the fourth quarter, and the Heat had a five-minute goal drought, as Jimmy Butler scored 13 straight points for his team, calling up the eighth-seeded zombies from the grave and taking an 89-88 lead . in the last two minutes. A Bruce Brown dropback returned the lead to Denver, and Butler’s turnover with 27.4 seconds remaining gave the Nuggets a chance to finally settle Miami. The Nuggets, 9-for-19 from the line at the time, made four consecutive free throws down the stretch to clinch.

Butler was locked in a miserable 2-for-13 night as he hit the first of consecutive 3-pointers with 4:29 left. Butler kicked his right foot into Aaron Gordon’s groin on a three-point attempt a minute later, but the officials confirmed a controversial foul. in return for the Nuggets forward, and Butler’s three free throws narrowed the margin to 86–85. Butler wrapped four more points around a Jokic layup for the 89-88 edge.

Miami looked poised to spoil Denver’s celebration until Brown swam through a sea of ​​three Miami defenders to catch Jamal Murray’s errant 18-footer and bring home the series winner with 91 seconds left.

Jokic went 12-for-16 from the floor. The rest of the Nuggets combined to shoot 26-of-68 (38.2%). Denver as a team finished 5-for-28 from 3-point range (17.9%) and 13-for-23 from the free throw line (56.5%) and somehow still won a closeout contest that was as ugly as it was entertaining. The Heat was no better, finishing 33-for-96 from the field (34.4%). The teams made a total of 34 fouls and 22 turnovers between them.

The Heat forced four turnovers in the opening minutes, but was unable to capitalize and started 3-for-16. Nuggets coach Michael Malone called a timeout, trying to calm the nerves of a team playing to his bloodthirsty home crowd, and his players responded (again). Murray (14 points) and Jeff Green closed dunks—one on a drive, the other on a backcut—around a smooth jumper from Michael Porter Jr. (16 points, 13 rebounds). Denver moved the ball as fast as he picked up the pace, and an avalanche threatened Miami.

Then, four minutes after Gordon committed his second foul, Jokic joined him on the bench with two of his own fouls at 2:51 into the first quarter. Bam Adebayo took that on his orders to attack Green as a small-ball center and finished back-and-ones. His 14 points in the first quarter turned the game in Miami’s favor, 22-18.

In a second-quarter slog clouded by 10 personal fouls split almost evenly between both teams, the Heat were in their element. After starting 1-for-9 in the paint, they found success attacking the basket, first with Jokic on the bench, then when he actively avoided a third foul. They got eight points from Butler, four more from Adebayo, all on the perimeter or free-throw line, and 15 points in the frame from the bench, including two three-pointers from Kyle Lowry and a third from Duncan Robinson, to build a lead as big as like 10.

Porter’s nine points and eight rebounds in the first half kept the Nuggets from a wider deficit, as did 34 points in the paint. Miami’s 51-44 lead at halftime felt light considering Denver’s 1-for-15 shot from deep.

So the Nuggets gave the Heat a good dose of Jokic early in the third. He totaled eight points and five rebounds in the first five minutes of the quarter, and Murray broke Denver’s streak of 13 consecutive missed 3s, tying the score from the corner in transition, 60–60. Porter broke his own 3-for-26 slump in the Finals, drilling a 3 in transition and giving the Nuggets their first lead since the first quarter, 69-66.

Another Lowry triple helped the Heat carry a 71-70 lead into the final frame, but the Nuggets emerged with the taste of a title on their weary tongues. Murray found Jokic out of the gate for a layup, then found the net on a second consecutive three-pointer. Denver led 75-71 and Miami needed a timeout. Butler went 2-for-12 in the game, Adebayo 1-for-5 since halftime, and the Nuggets defense strangled the Heat by a string.

Butler made one last kick before his Heat finally succumbed. The Nuggets, already a mile high, soared into thin air and completed a 16-4 blitz through the playoffs. They joined the 2017 Golden State Warriors (16-1) and the 2007 San Antonio Spurs (16-4) as the only champions to lose fewer than five playoff games since 2003, when the NBA switched to a best-of seven format in the first round. And the Denver party is just getting started.

“We’re not satisfied with one,” Malone told the Nuggets faithful. “We want more.”

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) celebrates with his daughter after winning the 2023 NBA Championship against the Miami Heat at Ball Arena.  (Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports)

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) celebrates with his daughter after winning the 2023 NBA Championship against the Miami Heat at Ball Arena. (Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports)

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