LOS ANGELES – They kept coming, these Denver Nuggets. When LeBron James made shots, when Anthony Davis blocked them, when every Tristan Thompson-sized button Darvin Ham pushed seemed destined to extend this series to a fifth game.
Pack it in, finish things off in Colorado?
Nah. The only thing the Nuggets wanted to take home was a trophy.
Denver is Finals-bound, completing a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers with a 113–111 win on Monday. The Nuggets trailed by six at the end of the first quarter, 15 at the half and LeBron James was cooking. From the bench, Michael Malone, an assistant for the Cavs during James’s years in Cleveland, recognized what he was seeing.
“Vintage LeBron,” said Malone. “He knew what time it was with their team.”
Malone knew what was wrong with his team, too. The Nuggets weren’t playing physical enough. “They didn’t feel us at all,” said Malone. He looked at a stat sheet and saw the Lakers dominating in transition (8–2) and points in the paint (36–20), while Denver was losing the turnover battle (6–2).
Said Malone, “We just did not like who we were.”
In the third quarter, the Nuggets were something different. Denver blitzed LA 36–16 in the third, erasing the halftime deficit and taking a five-point lead into the fourth. Nikola Jokic scored 13 of his 30 points in the quarter. He ripped down 10 rebounds. He got to the free throw line six times. He picked up three assists.
What a postseason it’s been for Jokic. Maligned for previous playoff failures, Jokic has dominated this one. He collected his eighth triple-double on Monday, eclipsing Wilt Chamberlain’s decades-old record for most triple-doubles in a postseason. He knocked down an impossible, over the head three-pointer over James in the second quarter and heaved another one over the outstretched hands of Davis in the fourth.
“Larry Bird-style,” James said, before literally tipping his cap. “He did that like four or five times this series.”
Nikola Jokic “that’s my signature shot… I’m joking. But it’s the easiest shot to shoot when you just have to shoot. Being off balanced, I’ve been off balanced my entire life.”pic.twitter.com/tIfa3x7l2c
— Jake Shapiro (@Shapalicious) May 23, 2023
He wasn’t alone. Aaron Gordon got rolling. The Lakers have been willing to live with Gordon jump shots in this series. For most of it, the strategy worked; Gordon missed all six of his three-point attempts in the first three games. In Game 4, it didn’t. Gordon made 9-of-14 shots—and 3-of-5 from three—on his way to 22 points.
“It’s about the work,” Gordon said. “I’m not worried about whether they’re going in or whether they’re going out. It’s a matter of just shooting them with confidence fundamentally, making sure that my shot is sound, and then the percentages will play out how they’re supposed to.”
Jamal Murray got it going. On Saturday, Malone recounted a conversation he had with Murray after he tore his ACL late in the ’20-21 season. On the team bus to the airport, Murray had tears in his eyes. Murray asked Malone if the team was going to trade him. If they considered him “damaged goods.”
“I hugged him,” Malone said. “I said ‘Hell no, you’re ours. We love you. We’re going to help you get back, and you’re going to be a better player for it.’”
Malone’s words proved prophetic. Murray averaged 32.5 points in the conference finals. He scored 25 in Game 4, adding five assists. He connected on 55.6% of his shots, the third time this series he has shot better than 50%.
In the fourth quarter, the game tightened. Davis got going. Tristan Thompson made a shot. Thompson has not played meaningful playoff minutes since 2018 and as recently as last month was sitting on an ESPN set. But Ham inserted Thompson into the game early in the second quarter. Thompson responded by setting hard screens and playing physical defense. Early in the fourth, Thompson corralled a bounce pass from James and elevated for a dunk.
The Lakers had a chance. James had a chance. For James, Game 4 was a tour de force. He scored 31 points in the first half. But he was wearing down. He picked up a rare technical foul after wrestling with Gordon in the second quarter. He scored just six points in the third. After playing 43 minutes in Game 3, James played all 48 in Game 4. He chased Murray around on the perimeter. He battled Jokic in the paint. In the fourth, James drew back-to-back charges on the former MVP.
With four seconds left and the Lakers down two, James got the ball. Collecting the inbound, James drove left. He got a step on Gordon. Quickly, Murray slid over to help. “Yoked up my man,” said Murray, who recalled a similar drive James had made during the regular season, against Indiana, when he went for a left-handed layup. “I wasn’t going to let him have a good angle,” Murray said. James muscled up a shot. It missed, blocked by Gordon. He couldn’t collect the loose ball in time for another.
The @nuggets advance to the #NBAFinals presented by YouTube TV!
LAL: 111 pic.twitter.com/sJk3xAHQ95
— NBA (@NBA) May 23, 2023
Denver won, and the Nuggets will advance to its first Finals in franchise history. In the locker room, James and Davis marveled at how complete Denver was.
“We came to the consensus [that] this is one of the best teams, if not the best team, we’ve played together for all four years,” James said. “Just well-orchestrated, well put together. They have scoring. They have shooting. They have playmaking. They have smarts. They have length. They have depth. And one thing about their team, when you have a guy like Jokic, who as big as he is but also as cerebral as he is, you can’t really make many mistakes versus a guy like that.”
This postseason has been seen as a validation of sorts for Jokic. Critics had declared Jokic a regular season player. “Silly narratives,” said Malone. Skeptics dismissed his dominance in advanced stats. After the game, James made clear he wasn’t one of them.
“There are certain guys in this league that play the game a certain way,” James said. “A certain way that I like to play the game as well, and he’s one of them where you are always off balance when you are guarding a player like that. He sees plays before they happen. There’s not many guys in our league like that … everybody gets cracked up into his stats but I don’t think a lot of people talk about [the mental] part of his game Maybe it’s not talked about because a lot of people don’t understand it, but I do. He’s special.”
He will have a chance to show it on the NBA’s biggest stage. With the Finals set to start on June 1, the Nuggets will have a lengthy break. “Might go to Cabo for a few days,” joked Malone. For Jokic, it’s a chance to rest. Jokic played 45 minutes in Game 4. He averaged 42 minutes for the series. He added a conference finals MVP trophy to his growing collection of hardware. As he accepted the award, Jokic thought about the journey it took to get here.
“I think I’m really happy for the guys and for the organization and just how we fight through,” Jokic said. “I remember the days when nobody was in our [arena]. You could hear the ball bounce on the floor. There was no fans. And [now] we have a sellout every other night. Just for the organization, just for the people, just for Coach, for all the players that everybody [doubted], I think I’m just happy. It means a lot for me for the collective that we have.”