DENVER — When it was over — when the Denver Nuggets had finally bested the Miami Heat, the doubters, and their own obvious nerves — Ball Arena erupted. Joy, sure, it was there, in its roaring approval and raucous cacophony of chants. But there was relief, too, an emotional exhale nearly 19,000 strong.
After 47 seasons, and a final 48 minutes of often-nervy basketball, through the turnovers and the missed threes and the questionable officiating and the weight of a closeout game, one thing was now certain: The Denver Nuggets were, at last, NBA champions.
And with that fact will come many, many new truths. That’s the nature of winning: It redefines and illuminates things in new and sometimes unpredictable ways.
The Nuggets’ path to that place wasn’t easy, certainly not on Monday night in Game 5 against a dogged but equally ill-firing Heat team.
Denver hit a paltry 18 percent of their three-point shots, starting the game an astonishingly terrible 1 of 17 from deep. They made only 57 percent of their free throws. They turned the ball over 15 times, including four to start the game itself, setting a tone of fear, worry and pressure. And they nearly blew a seven-point fourth-quarter lead.
Yet somehow, throughout all of that, the Nuggets found a way to prevail. It was a gutsy performance, great in one way, and absolute in what it now means: That they are the pinnacle of NBA basketball.
“We accomplished something this franchise has never done before,” head coach Michael Malone said. “We have a lot of young talented players in that locker room, and I think we just showed through 16 playoff wins what we’re capable of on the biggest stage in the world.”
Nothing levels narratives and sets the truth in stone like a championship. And now, as champions, several facts — some already true, others perhaps transformed by that strange magic of the Larry O’Brien Trophy — will harden into widely-held beliefs.
Let’s start with Nikola Jokic. Named the unanimous Finals MVP, he is now, beyond any doubt, one of the game’s best players — perhaps its singular star.
And an all-time great.
His 52.9 combined average of points, rebounds and assists per game in the playoffs is the second-most in league history, after Wilt Chamberlain’s 1967 playoff run. In these Finals, Jokic averaged 30.2 points, 14 rebounds, 7.2 asists and 1.4 steals. He shot 58.3% from the field. He was extraordinary.
All the idiotic talk that racism played a role in the MVP awards he received in the two previous regular seasons, the idea voters should (and some did) shy away from another award because he’d won too many, that he was overrated is now gone — vanished in that hail of confetti that fell on him, his teammates and his family Monday night.
What remains is one of the greatest centers in history, whose Game 5 showing of 28 points and 16 rebounds was another exclamation point behind the player he is and the championship he has helped bring to Denver.
His 10 points in the fourth quarter, as the Heat turned that late seven-point deficit into a nail-biter, carried his team and cemented the reality for those who still might not have known exactly who Jokic is. He is a bright star in the game’s biggerest moments, something many other NBA greats, former and current MVPs included, cannot claim.
“Yeah, I don’t really think you can put it into context,” Michael Porter Jr. said of Jokic afterward. “I don’t really think people understand how good of a basketball player he is. He led us all playoffs with his passing some games, scoring other games.
“This was a historic run,” he said. “I don’t know how you can say he’s not the best big man ever. He’s one of the all-time best basketball players. I don’t care what anyone says. I think he’s one of the all-time best players to ever play this game.”
Another truth that has emerged from this run is the space Jamal Murray now occupies in the game’s landscape. He, too, is more than a star. He showed out his Top-20 caliber or better. He had 14-8-8 stat line in Game 5, after becoming the first player in league history to notch at least 10 assists in each of his first four NBA Finals contests. And he also showed he can face big moments and make them his own.
Murray has been, like the Nuggets themselves, widely overlooked. His injury that sidelined him for a year, and any thought that Denver was good, but just not quite championship stuff, has also vanished in the haze of confetti raining down inside the arena.
“Everything was hitting at once,” Murray said. “From the journey, to the celebration with the guys, to enjoying the moment, to looking back on the rehab, to looking back at myself as a kid, as the other viewer, looking from the crowd in or from the camera lens in, and now looking back at them.
“It was a lot,” he said, explaining the tears that came in that moment. “I couldn’t hold it in.”
The Nuggets themselves sit on a new pedestal. And they are reigning champions who also possess a remarkable amount of runway for the future. Jokic is 28 years old, Murray 26. Michael Porter Jr., who after a rough series put up a key 16 points and 13 rebounds Monday night, is just 24.
The Western Conference will be a slog again next year, full of land mines and deep, potentially dangerous teams. But we know from NBA history that winning championships often serves as a catalyst for more. Denver is young, its core is tight, and its experience is now as formidable as its roster. This could be just the beginning.
Other narratives will fall, or at least teeter. Turns out you can, in fact, let coaches have ample time to build a culture, to learn along with their players, to grow slowly over time. You need not fire the right coach even if the wrong outcomes happen.
This was Malone’s eighth year in Denver, and this was his first NBA Finals appearance. So it also turns out that overreaction need not be the go-to move.
The patience the Kroenke family showed could be a better model, an antidote to the change-everything-at-first-struggle mode we saw this offseason from the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors, among others.
It’s also another happy rebuttal to the super-team, force-my-way-somewhere-else paradigm that has dominated the game since 2010.
“They are very calm, cool, collected,” Malone said about the Nuggets’ owners and approach a few hours before he and his team won them an NBA championship. “They don’t react. And I’m really thankful for that, and I think our players are, too, because we wouldn’t be in this moment if that had not been the course that they chose.”
Winning cures all things. It will also erase what otherwise could have been, in Game 5 at least, an all-time poor reaction by Denver to the strange pressure of a close-out game.
Having withstood that, many things at once are now true: Jokic is an all-time great in his prime and a possible heir to LeBron, KD and Steph. Murray is a star worthy of a champion’s respect. Malone will elevate in the coaching pantheon. The Nuggets’ model of patience and home-grown greatness will resonate. And Denver will enter next season as the favorite.
Denver’s won it all. And now they’ll find that winning has the power to change all things, too.
Nuggets NBA championship gear released
The Nuggets have won their first NBA title ever. You can now buy Nuggets championship shirts, hats, jerseys, hoodies, and much more to celebrate the historic win. Get Nuggets NBA championship gear here now.
We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.