Game 5 of the 2023 NBA Finals wasn’t a basketball contest, not really. It was a boxing match, perhaps, given the tremendous physicality involved. It was a pressure cooker. It was, in the end, a celebration.
The Denver Nuggets are champions for the first time, after a 94-89 win over the Miami Heat on Monday, with a stellar defensive performance clinching the title for the best offensive team in the NBA. Finals MVP Nikola Jokic tallied 28 points and 16 rebounds, four other Nuggets scored in double figures, and Bruce Brown notched the go-ahead bucket on a putback with 91 seconds left.
It wasn’t the easiest win the Nuggets have enjoyed this postseason: In a potential home clincher, they were trapped in foul trouble, made just 18 percent of their 3-pointers and 57 percent of their free throws, and committed enough turnovers to suggest they’d slathered their fingers with hot sauce before the game.
But this final bit of drama proved a compelling capper to a chaotic season—and to an otherwise commanding postseason run, as Denver finished 16-4 in the playoffs, with a sweep in the Western Conference finals and a five-game victory in the Finals. The Nuggets had never even reached the Finals before, but they dominated once they got there, and completed their mission to deliver Denver its first NBA title.
Undermanned and ill-equipped to handle Denver’s size, Miami made the hosts in Ball Arena work for every bit of their clinching victory. On an ugly shooting night for both squads—combined 14-for-63 (22 percent) from distance—the Heat were the aggressors early in Game 5, and led after the first, second, and third quarters.
Bam Adebayo scored 18 first-half points before fading in the second, and Kyle Lowry turned back the clock with four 3-pointers and a seemingly infinite number of pesky plays. Jimmy Butler suffered from the shooting misfires that afflicted just about everyone else on the court, but he almost single-handedly weathered a Nuggets rally in the fourth quarter with a 13-point flurry of his own. On consecutive possessions in the final five minutes, with Miami’s improbable Cinderella run about to hit midnight, Butler sank two 3-pointers and was fouled on a third (or at least the refs said he was fouled on a controversial play, and confirmed the decision on review).
But with the Nuggets trailing 89-88, Brown cleaned up a miss from Jamal Murray, giving Denver the lead. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stole a Butler pass a minute later and made two free throws, and Brown followed with two more free throws of his own. That the two defensively oriented role players, both acquired over the summer as Denver sought to improve the rotation around its core stars, effectively clinched the title is a perfect illustration of the teamwide contributions that earned the Nuggets the championship.
They’d been close to that elite level as far back as 2021, when they traded for Aaron Gordon and looked like a potential juggernaut for all of eight games before Murray tore his ACL. Without Jokic’s super-sidekick, that potential lost its definition and turned hazy instead; sometimes in sports, ostensible title windows close all too soon. The Thunder with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook never won a title; neither did Steve Nash’s Suns or the early-2000s Kings or the mid-’90s Sonics. NBA history is littered with entertaining young contenders that captured the imagination but never converted that dynamism into championship success.
But after missing the 2021 playoffs and the entire 2021-22 season, Murray returned from his injury as electric a creator as ever, and all the Nuggets’ gears slotted smoothly into place. En route to a title, Denver nailed all three methods of roster construction. Via free agency, the Nuggets boosted their bench with Brown and Jeff Green. Via trades, they supplemented their stars with Gordon and Caldwell-Pope. And via the draft, of course, they acquired those stars: Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Jokic, drafted 41st overall, in the middle of a Taco Bell commercial, at the age of 19.
It is now definitive, if it wasn’t already, that Jokic is the greatest draft pick relative to slot expectations in NBA history. No other MVP in league history was picked lower than 15th (both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Steve Nash). And Jokic isn’t just the only MVP ever picked 41st; he’s the only All-Star ever picked at that slot.
And now, in the last three seasons, he’s won two regular-season MVPs and a Finals MVP. In these playoffs alone, Jokic averaged 30 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 9.5 assists per game on 55-46-80 percent shooting splits; he became the first player to lead the entire postseason field in total points, rebounds, and assists.
Before Jokic, the Nuggets’ best players were always extraordinary offensive talents who never won in the playoffs. David Thompson. Dan Issel. Alex English. Carmelo Anthony.
Jokic might have followed that lineage; he had the extraordinary offensive talent part down, at the very least. But he broke ranks with this title, and by maturing into one of the best playoff performers in NBA history. He ranks first in career postseason PER—one spot ahead of Michael Jordan.
The broader team success he inspired is unique, as the Nuggets hadn’t just failed to win a title before this season—they’d never even come close. Just about all of Denver’s historical playoff drama occurred in the first round, well before the Finals, as the franchise developed a reputation for fun, fast-paced teams that took advantage of Denver’s altitude, but whose approach always seemed like more of a gimmick than a legitimate championship strategy.
The Nuggets’ best regular-season team in the NBA was the 2012-13 squad, led by Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, and Andre Iguodala, which finished 57-25. They lost in the first round of the playoffs.
The Nuggets also boasted the highest-scoring team in NBA history, as coach Doug Moe’s 1981-82 team with English, Issel, and Kiki Vandeweghe poured in 126.5 points per game. They lost in the first round, too.
Even the famous image of Dikembe Mutombo gripping the ball after Denver completed the NBA’s first 8-over-1 upset can be twisted as an indictment of the franchise’s legacy: Until 2023, the best moment in Nuggets history came in the first round.
But Jokic’s Nuggets reached the conference finals in the bubble in 2020, via two 3-1 series comebacks, and in Murray’s return to the court after his ACL tear, they left no doubts about their place atop the current NBA hierarchy. They finished the 2023 playoffs with a 118.2 offensive rating and a 110.2 defensive mark, both of which would have ranked no. 2 in the regular season.
Many champions must survive decisive what-if scenarios that demonstrate just how many things need to go right for one specific team out of 30 to win the title. What if Durant’s foot had been three inches farther back against the Bucks in 2021? What if Kawhi Leonard’s four-bouncer hadn’t dropped in 2019? What if Draymond Green hadn’t been suspended in 2016?
No such hypotheticals apply to the 2022-23 Nuggets. They never trailed in a series, never faced a Game 7, never lost any playoff game by more than seven points. Only Devin Booker’s brief transcendence of the mortal plane caused the Nuggets any adversity at all.
On Monday, the Nuggets wrapped up their postseason romp with a 16-4 record. In the last 15 years, only one other team—the first edition of the Durant Warriors, which has an argument as the greatest team in NBA history—won the championship with four playoff losses or fewer.
NBA Champions With Four or Fewer Playoff Losses
The Nuggets might have benefited from the opponents they faced en route to that accomplishment. In the first two rounds, they faced a no. 8 and a no. 4 seed—as expected for the no. 1 team—but then they beat the no. 7 Lakers in the conference finals and the no. 8 Heat in the Finals. By pure seed alone, it was the easiest title path in modern NBA history.
Yet a “pure seed” outlook understates the obstacles Denver hurdled. The Suns were seeded fourth in the West, sure, but they’d added Durant and entered their second-round clash as favorites to knock off the Nuggets. Some of the greatest stars in the NBA stood between Denver and this championship: The Nuggets beat Durant, Booker, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Playoff Jimmy sounds a lot more impressive than the Nuggets beat a no. 4, no. 7, and no. 8 seed.
In a season characterized by unusual parity, the new-look Suns and healthy Lakers might have been the two most fearsome Western Conference opponents Denver could have faced. The same folks downplaying the Nuggets’ sweep of a no. 7 seed in the conference finals would just as surely critique them for beating a “weak” no. 2 or 3 if the Grizzlies or Kings had reached that round instead of the Lakers.
In the Finals, the Bucks or Celtics might have posed a more formidable challenge than the Heat did. But Miami beat both of those higher-seeded, more-touted contenders, and deserved to do so. It’s not the Nuggets’ fault that none of the other top contenders for the title held serve; they could only beat—and beat thoroughly—the opponents in front of them.
It might not seem like it because they never made a single massive four-first-rounders-included blockbuster trade, but the Nuggets pushed hard for this opportunity. Between various draft-pick trades and high-dollar extensions, they ranked fourth at the start of this season in The Ringer’s All In-dex rankings. The point of going all in is to win a title, and the two previous champions—Warriors and Bucks—were also two of the teams above Denver on that list. Now the Nuggets join them in benefiting from such an aggressive approach.
That ambition should result in more championship opportunities, too; Denver won’t be a one-hit wonder. The Nuggets’ core four starters—Jokic, Murray, Porter, and Gordon—are all still in their 20s, and all signed for multiple seasons into the future. Nobody else in the NBA is better right now; nobody else, the playoffs made clear, is even all that close.
Look at that above chart again, which lists all the other teams in the modern playoff era that won the championship with four or fewer playoff losses. There are 13 of them, before these Nuggets—and all 13 were part of dynasties, with multiple titles in a short span.
So it’s no surprise that coach Michael Malone already began planning for a repeat during the first Larry O’Brien Trophy presentation in franchise history. “We’re not satisfied with this one,” Malone said. “We want more.”
But as a franchise first; as the summation of a long, triumphantly successful journey; as the incontrovertible proof of a possibility that so many fans and pundits across the country doubted for so long, the Nuggets should, for the moment, be satisfied with their title. At least their brightest star feels that dual sense of closure and accomplishment.
“The job is done,” Jokic told ESPN in his postgame interview. “We can go home now.”