LOS ANGELES — Aaron Gordon didn’t know what to make of himself when the final buzzer sounded.
His adrenaline kept him on edge. He looked around and hugged and shook hands with some Los Angeles Lakers players. He hugged his teammates from the bench. It seemed like a fog – as if everyone in the Crypto.com arena moved in slow motion. The Denver Nuggets defeated the Lakers 113-111 to advance to the first NBA Finals in franchise history. Gordon blocked a shot by LeBron James that would have tied the game. Western Conference title T-shirts were distributed and the awards ceremony was hastily set up.
All Gordon could think about at the moment was… more to do.
“I was a little bit in shock,” Gordon said. “I was like, are we sure there’s not much time on the clock? Are we sure we don’t have another quarter to play or another game to play? So it’s like, no, we won. It’s time to get out of there.
On Monday night, a Nuggets team that separated themselves from the rest of the Western Conference since Day 1 broke through the glass ceiling everyone had set for them. This Nuggets team, built around the immense talents of Nikola Jokic and Jamaal Murray, has finally gotten to where they’ve been openly and shyly talking about since the start of this season.
This team makes no bones about its upside potential; A championship or winning team from the moment training camp begins. They spoke and many of us refused to listen. And maybe it’s for good reason. After all, this Nuggets team was completely blown out in the first round by the Golden State Warriors last season. Two years ago, they were eliminated in the second round by the Phoenix Suns. Murray missed the series with a torn ACL that sidelined him for nearly two years. But, there was always doubt.
A common refrain is that Jokic is too susceptible to defenses in pick-and-roll coverage. This Nuggets team was too flashy, too good looking and not bad enough. This Denver team just doesn’t defend well enough. What happens when the Nuggets get to the postseason and they face Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, or LeBron James, or the gauntlet that this Nuggets team will never get through in the Western Conference?
Throughout this postseason, this Denver team has shown every possession on both ends of the floor with a chip on its collective shoulders and an intent to throw criticism back at the critics. When the Nuggets beat the Lakers in Game 1, a national narrative pointed to the Lakers finding a way to exploit Denver, head coach Michael Malone pointed that out after Game 2.
For most of the postseason, when the Nuggets were asked what they proved to the public after each win, the Nuggets scoffed and said nothing, and asked the media why they weren’t watching. Tucked away in the Rocky Mountains, the Nuggets changed so significantly this season from last year that many outside of the locals didn’t pay enough attention.
The addition of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was panned by many members of the media. The addition of Bruce Brown was never seen as a real impact signing. Draft Christian Brown – Nice pick, nice kid, but does he really make a difference in a playoff setting?
Those moves gave the Nuckets the most complete roster they’ve ever had around Jokic and Murray. It gave them the defensive ability to shield Jokic from guys coming to the basket off the dribble. Those guys made an impact offensively in a playoff setup. But most importantly, Murray is back to the Murray he was before the injury. And Jokic went from being one of the best players in the world to arguably the best player in the world.
Seriously. Does anyone else even have a credible argument at this point?
“I think it starts with a belief in themselves, but maybe collectively,” Malone said. “I’ve seen that confidence all year. We knew in mid-December when we climbed into first place in the Western Conference. Through ups and downs, we never lost first place in the West. It means a lot to beat this team in the Western Conference Finals and get the first sweep in franchise history. But I speak for the 17 players in that locker room and then the entire organization. We are not satisfied. We’re going to enjoy it for a moment and it’s going to be one hell of a flight home. But we still have a lot of work to do.
James had a strong play on Monday night, scoring 40 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out nine assists. It was one of the classic LeBron James playoff moments he’s known for over two decades. He hit the Nuggets with haymaker after haymaker. He scored at will, then found his teammates when the Nuggets began doubling him. Simply put, he put in an all-time level performance.
Jokic nailed it.
He scored 30 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and dished out 13 assists. He scored the game-winning points, as he has all series. But with Jokic it was more than that. That was his influence. Just as James grabbed Monday night’s game by the throat, so did Jokic. For 20 years, when LeBron James decided to take a moment and make it his own, there was little to deny him, and Jokic was able to do just that.
With these nuggets built right around Jokic and Murray, it’s all the more important for this Denver team to see Jokic make another leap and become the best player in the game. He’s been funny this postseason, almost indescribably so.
In the conference finals, he averaged nearly 28 points to go along with 14.5 rebounds and 11.8 assists. He absolutely destroyed Davis when the Lakers AD needed to play Jokic close to have any chance of winning the series. Jokic winning that tournament by such a wide margin that even James couldn’t overcome by scoring 40 points near a triple-double. Jockey scored the game-winning bucket of the series by Davis, a side note to how the series went between the two.
“I think you’re happy you win a game and you beat a good team,” Jokic said. “I think it could have gone either way, every game was so close. Anybody could have won. But we were happy to win the game and the series, especially when we were down 15 — to come back and win the game. There was a lot of emotion.”
These nails have been stubborn that they have not done their job. They would tie the Miami Heat in the finals. The Heat are playing well enough that they will be Denver’s best test in the postseason. But let’s not dismiss how dominant the Nuggets have been at this point. They defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves in five games. They beat the Phoenix Suns in six games. On Monday night they completed the first postseason sweep in franchise history.
Denver’s window is on now. The stars have aligned for a team that has been patient, forming a bond around Jokic, Murray and Malone. They were the best team in the Western Conference during the regular season. They have been the best team in the postseason.
Now, they are four wins away from achieving their ultimate goal.
(Top photo of Nikola Jokic dribbling against LeBron James and Anthony Davis: Kirby Lee/USA Today)