DENVER — Confetti flying in Denver. The Nuggets passing the NBA championship trophy.
Those scenes that, for decades, seemed impossible, then more recently began to feel inevitable, finally became reality on Monday night.
The Nuggets outscored the Miami Heat 94-89 in an ugly and frenetic Game 5 that didn’t derail Nikola Jokic, who rescued his teammates 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 has more meaning to him than the two overall MVPs he won in 2021 and 2022.
“We’re not in this for ourselves, we’re in this for the guy next to us,” Jokic said. “And that’s why this (means) even more.”
Denver’s clincher was a gruesome routine.
Unable to shake off the tenacious Heat or the jitters of 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 late, before Miami’s Jimmy Butler left, scoring eight straight points to give the Heat a one-point lead with 2:45 to play.
Butler made two more free throws with 1:58 remaining to help Miami regain a one-point lead. Then Bruce Brown got an offensive rebound and bunt to give the Nuggets the lead for good.
Trailing by three with 15 seconds remaining, Butler raised a 3, but missed. Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each made two free throws to put the game out of reach and clinch the title for Denver.
Butler finished with 21 points.
As ugly as it was, the fallout was something the Nuggets and their fans could agree was beautiful. There were fireworks exploding outside Ball Arena at the final buzzer. Denver is home to 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 get shots, but we figured it out in the end,” Jokic said. “I’m happy we won the game.”
The Heat were, as coach Erik Spoelstra promised, a fearless and tenacious group. But his 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 a gate-tournament loss to become the second No. 8 seed to reach the finals, insisted they weren’t in the consolation prizes.
They played as if they expected to win, and for a while during this game, which was settled with both ground-dipping players and sweet-looking jump shots, it seemed like they would.
The Nuggets, who came in shooting 37.6% from 3 for the series, shot 18% in this one. They committed 14 turnovers. Even with clutch shots from Brown and Caldwell-Pope, they only made 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 on an off night, also joined them there.
It made the Nuggets tentative on both ends of the floor for the rest of the half. Somehow, after shooting 6.7% from 3, the worst first half in finals history (minimum 10 shots), they were only down by seven.
True to the Nuggets persona, they kept pressing, attacked their opponent in waves, and figured out how to win a game that went against their type. The beautiful game of his turned into a fight, but he was found out anyway.
“That’s why basketball is a fun sport,” Jokic said. “It is 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 seemed almost perfect that an unannounced and once-chubby Serbian second-round pick would be the one to lift Denver to the top of a league that, for decades, has been dominated by superstars, first-round picks, and players who lead the world in sales of sneakers and t-shirts.
During their nearly five-decade tenure in the league, the Nuggets have been the epitome of a lovable NBA backbencher: entertaining at times, decked out in rainbows on their uniforms and spearheaded by colorful characters on the floor and bench. But never good enough to break through against the biggest stars and the best teams east, west and south of them.
Before this season, there were only two teams founded before 1980, the Nuggets and the Clippers, who had never been to an NBA Finals. The Nuggets removed their name from that list and later joined San Antonio as the second original ABA team to capture the biggest prize in the NBA. The other two ABAers, the Pacers and the Nets, reached the final but lost.
It was the Joker’s blossoming into a do-it-all force, even before Monday, he was the first player to record 500 points, 250 rebounds and 150 assists in a single postseason, making the Nuggets a team to watch. Not all did. A win-win trade couldn’t change Denver’s location on the map, in a strange time zone in flyover territory, and it didn’t change everyone’s view of the Nuggets.
Even in Denver.
There is no question that this has always been a Broncos type of town. No Denver victory will eclipse the day in 1998 when John Elway broke through and that team’s owner, Pat Bowlen, held the Lombardi Trophy aloft and declared, “This one’s for John!”
But this? He doesn’t take a back seat to much. It’s for every Dan (Issel), David (Thompson), Doug (Moe) or Dikembe (Mutombo) who has ever fallen short or been passed over for a newer, shinier model with more glitter and more stars.
For the first time in 47 seasons, no one in the NBA shines brighter than the Nuggets.
“The fans in this city are incredible,” team owner Stan Kroenke said. “It means a lot to us to do this.”