LOS ANGELES – Aaron Gordon didn’t quite know what to do with himself when the final bell sounded.
The adrenaline kept him on edge. He looked around and hugged and shook hands with some Los Angeles Lakers players. He hugged his teammates who came off the bench. Everything seemed like a haze – like everyone in the Crypto.com Arena was moving in slow motion. The Denver Nuggets had just beaten the Lakers 113-111 to advance to the first NBA Finals in franchise history. Gordon had just blocked a LeBron James shot that would have tied the game. The Western Conference title T-shirts were handed out and the awards ceremony hastily commenced.
All Gordon can think of at the moment is… there must be more for him to do.
“I was a little bit in shock,” Gordon said. “I was like, ‘Are we sure there’s no more time on the clock?'” Are we sure we don’t have another quarter to play or another game? Then it’s like, ‘Oh no, we won.’ It’s time to get out of there.”
Monday night, a Nuggets team that has separated itself from day one from the rest of the Western Conference broke the glass ceiling everyone had set for it. This Nuggets team, a team built around the incredible talents of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, is finally getting to the place it’s been talking bluntly and brazenly since the start of this season.
This team is not sure of any potential upside. A team that was championship or bust from the very first moment of training camp. The nuggets spoke, and many of us refused to listen. Perhaps it was for good reason. After all, this past season the Nuggets were beaten in the first round by the Golden State Warriors. Two years ago, Denver was knocked out in the second round by the Phoenix Suns. Murray did not participate in any of those series, due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament that cost him nearly two years. The skeptics have always been there.
A common refrain was that Jokić was very sensitive defensively in his catch coverage. The nuggets were too flashy, too pretty, and not brave enough. They didn’t defend enough. What happens when the Nuggets make it to the postseason and face Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, the LeBron, or a Western Conference challenge this team could never top?
Throughout the postseason, this Denver team has played every possession on both sides of the earth with a pellet and a chip on its collective shoulders that signal an intent to take the cash and give it back to the pundits. When the Nuggets defeated the Lakers in Game 1, a national narrative hinted that the Lakers were finding a way to take advantage of Denver, which Coach Michael Malone made sure to point out after Game 2.
For most of the postseason, when these Nuggets were asked what they proved to the fans after each win, the Nuggets sneered and said nothing, asking the media why they weren’t watching. Tucked away in the Rocky Mountains, the Nuggets have changed so dramatically from last year to this season that not many locals have paid enough attention.
The addition of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was criticized by several members of the media. The addition of Bruce Brown was never seen as a truly influential signing. Drafting Christian Braun – Good pick, good kid, but does he really make a difference in a playoff frame?
These moves ended up giving the Nuggets the kind of complete roster Joki and Murray didn’t have around them. It gave them a defensive ability to isolate Jokic from getting players to the basket off the dribble. These players turned out to be very effective offensively in the playoffs. But more importantly, Murray is back to the pre-injury Murray he was. And Joki went from being one of the best players in the world to being the best player in the world.
seriously. Is there a credible argument for anyone else at this point?
“I think it starts with believing in themselves, but maybe it’s more in the group,” said Malone. “I’ve seen that belief all year. We knew that in mid-December when we shot up to #1 in the Western Conference. Through the ups and downs, we’ve never lost #1 in the West. To beat this team in the Western Conference Finals, and get their first sweep in history Franchise, it means a lot. But I speak for the 17 players in that locker room and then the whole organization. We’re not satisfied. We’ll enjoy it for a moment, and the plane ride home will be hell. But we’ve got more work to do.”
What spoke volumes Monday night was the power James played with, scoring 40 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and handing out 9 assists. It was one of the classic LeBron game moments for which he has been known for over two decades. Hit the nuggets with haymaker after haymaker. He scored at will and then found his teammates when the Nuggets began to double him. To put it simply, he put together an all-time level performance.
And Joki matches him.
He scored 30 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and 13 assists. He scored the game-winning points, outrunning and bodying Anthony Davis with ease in the paint, as he did in all series. But it was more than that with Jokic. was his effect. As much as James took Monday night’s game by the throat, Jokic did the same. Over the course of 20 years, when James decided to take a moment and make it his own, there were very few people who could deny him, and Jokic was able to do just that.
Because these bits are designed entirely around Jokić and Murray, Jokić taking another leap and becoming the MVP in the sport is what means the most to Denver. He’s been good this postseason, almost beyond description.
In conference finals, he averaged 28 points, to go along with 14.5 rebounds and 11.8 assists. Davis was completely obliterated when the Lakers needed an AD to play Jokić near any chance of winning the Series. Joki’s victory in that match became such a wide hole that not even James could bowl a 40 near triple-double to beat. Jokić scored the game-winning bucket by running through Davis as a sideshow to how the series went between the two.
“I think you’re just happy because you won a game and beat a really good team,” said Jokic. “I think it could have gone both ways, every game was so close. Anyone can win it. But we were just happy to win the game and the series, especially when we were 15th – to come back and win the game. There was a lot of emotion.” .
These nuggets have insisted their work is not done yet. They will likely meet the Miami Heat in the Finals. The Heat are playing well enough to be Denver’s top postseason test. But we shouldn’t discount how dominant the Nuggets have been up to this point. They defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves in five games. They beat the Phoenix Suns in six games. On Monday night, they completed their first sweep of the postseason in franchise history.
Denver window now. The stars joined a reformed and patient team and built a bond around Jokić, Murray, and Malone. They were the best team in the Western Conference during the regular season. They were by far the best team in the postseason.
And now, they are four wins away from achieving their ultimate goal.
(Top photo of the Denver Nuggets clinching the Western Conference Finals: Kirby Lee/USA Today)
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