LOS ANGELES – As the Denver Nuggets’ historic celebration began, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James walked off the court, his face blank.
On Monday night, the Nuggets were able to beat the last gasp of the Lakers, who kept their season alive for weeks after it should have ended. Even after the last bell, some Denver players couldn’t believe it was over and that they actually did.
The Nuggets are going into the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history after finishing four games from sweeping the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals with a 113-111 win on Monday.
Now, Denver awaits the winner of the Eastern Conference Finals, with the Miami Heat leading 3-0 over the Boston Celtics. Game Four in the East is on Tuesday in Miami.
Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic was named Western Conference Finals Most Valuable Player. He smiled warmly as he held his trophy and his teammates surrounded him and patted him on the head. He recorded 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists on Monday.
“Even when you’re guarding him for one of the best possessions you think you can guard, he puts the ball behind his head Larry Bird style and shoots it 50 feet in the air and tackles,” said James, then smiled wryly. “Just as he has done four or five times in this series.” Then he added, taking off his hat and turning it over.
Denver has not attended the NBA Finals in 47 seasons in the league. Now the longest drought belongs to the Sacramento Kings, who haven’t been since 1951, when they were known as the Rochester Royals. Pelicans, Timberwolves, Clippers, Grizzlies and Hornets have never been.
“I’m really happy for the guys, for the organization and the way we’re fighting,” said Jokic. “I remember the days when there was no one in our country – you could hear the ball bouncing on the ground and there were no fans.”
For the Nuggets, Monday’s victory capped a years-long process as their key players grew together, overcoming grueling injuries and facing questions about their ability to compete even in the West. Jokic has won the league’s MVP award twice, but has only managed to reach the conference finals once.
Denver lost superstar Jamal Murray in April 2021, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Nuggets coach Michael Malone said the day after the injury that Murray tearfully asked if the Nuggets would trade him, calling himself “damaged goods”.
“I hugged him,” said Malone. “I said, Hell no, you’re ours. We love you. We’ll help you come back, and you’ll be a better player for it.”
Murray missed the rest of the season and all of the 2021-22 season. In this year’s playoffs, Denver’s patience has paid off.
Murray began to look like the player he was before the injury and Jokic continued to play at an elite level, perfectly complementing Denver’s team of talented role players.
The Nuggets rose to #1 in the West in December and never got out of the top spot. In the playoffs, they beat the Timberwolves, 4-1, in the first round and the Phoenix Suns, 4-2 in the second round. Despite Denver’s dominance all season, the odds makers did not favor winning the championship. Nuggets have embraced it.
“We’re the underdogs,” said guard Kentavius Caldwell-Pope. “We don’t get enough credit for what we do.” He continued, “It’s not being talked about too much, we take it personally. We just use that energy, and keep proving everybody wrong.”
Even after the first two rounds, some thought the Lakers were dangerous enough to be the team that eventually turned the Nuggets on their head.
This confidence in the Lakers has only developed during the playoffs.
For a while, the Lakers seemed doomed due to roster problems and injuries to their stars, James and Anthony Davis. They started the season with a 2-10 record. In December, as the Nuggets were cementing their place atop the West, the Lakers were in 13th place.
Guard Russell Westbrook, who struggled with the Lakers last season, wasn’t fit yet and was pulled from the starting lineup after three games. Davis injured his foot on December 16 against the Nuggets and missed 20 games while recovering. Shortly after Davis’ return, James missed several games with a foot injury that some doctors he consulted said required surgery.
But changes to the trading deadline in February helped. The Lakers shipped Westbrook and brought in two innings players – Jarred Vanderbilt, D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley. They also traded Rui Hachimura in January.
They rose to seventh place in the West by the end of the regular season, and beat Minnesota in overtime in Championship Play to secure the seventh seed in the playoffs. In the first round, they calmed a rowdy Memphis team, who had spent most of the season in the top three in the West, by defeating them 4-2. They then upset the defending champion Golden State Warriors by a score of 4-2 and dominated them in the second round winning game.
And all the while, Darvin Hamm, their first-year head coach, reminded them how few people expected them to even make the playoffs.
But the Nuggets turned out to be a different kind of opponent. They were more cohesive, less dramatic, and stronger in center than Memphis and Golden State.
“We were competing every night,” Hamm said. “We’ve competed in every game in this series. I just asked the guys to evaluate what this means, what that feels like now, what we’ve been through in a full season and what we’ve had to do to get to this point.”
In the Lakers’ first two series, their opponents have verbally snapped at them, whether it’s Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks calling James, 38, or the Warriors accusing them of flopping for favorable calls. The Nuggets took a different approach, showing respect off the field right up to the end.
“I wouldn’t say I’m afraid, but I’m worried,” Jokic said after Denver’s Game 3 victory. “Because they have LeBron on the other side, and he can do everything.”
James seemed more fallible in this series than he has in the past. He went 0-for-10 from 3-point range in the first two games, made costly errors late in Game 1 and drew derision for missing a dunk in Game 2. Let him do it again.
A few hours before Monday’s game, James was going through a pregame warm-up when a group of broadcasters organized a rehearsal for the presentation of the Western Conference Championship Trophy on the field just yards from him. James used that as motivation.
He scored 31 points in the first half, making all four of his first quarter 3-point attempts.
“It was scary,” said Caldwell-Pope. “We know who LeBron is.”
James finished with 40 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists. On the last play of the game, James headed to the basket and attempted a game-tying shot through a swarm of nuggets. Murray was there, and as James gathered to shoot, Murray got his hands on the ball and wouldn’t let go.
“I knew I had to be there,” Murray said.
The clock is up and the Nuggets seat empties in celebration.
“It’s almost like a little bit of a shock,” said Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon. “You’re just, like, not sure, like, are you sure we don’t have more time on the clock? Are you sure we don’t have another quarter to play or another game to play? It’s just another chance to win them over?” Like: “Oh. No, we won. “