The crowd roared as confetti rained on the Denver Nuggets, holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy for its first time. As the final minutes of Game 5 faded, family members of players and coaches rushed through the tunnels to join their people. Public relations agents, ex-players down to the ball boys and security guards were walking with their chests out in jubilation.
To start, Miami forced Denver to commit four turnovers in three minutes, but coach Michael Malone stopped time, summoning his troops for a correction. It resulted in an unmatched 12-point burst, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra issued the club’s first break.
Bam Adebayo missed two easy shots at close-range defended by Nikola Jokić but swiped off the nerves, making four straight buckets, facing up, and attacking through pick and pop plus the roll. Max Strus was his only help, scoring eight points while the rest of the unit had two.
Jimmy Butler was plagued again by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s rapid hands, getting blocked on a low post-up, and he missed as Jokić’s length bothered him in drop coverage. The first sign of an off night for JB came when he missed both free throws in the first following three bricks.
In the first interval, the Heatles were curbed to 35.7% shooting but took four more shots and two additional freebies. They also drew two fouls apiece on Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green and Jokić, compelling Malone to sit his trusted former back-to-back MVP two minutes earlier than his average.
In the second quarter, Butler isolated Deandre Jordan for a scoop layup and finished a fastbreak dunk. Kyle Lowry splashed two 3-pointers, one at the top of the key against the drop and another well-contested strike from the corner.
Defensively, the Heat contained Jamal Murray to a pair of baskets by staying with his dribble and contesting the step-back up top or pull-up from the elbow.
At halftime, the Heat led 51-44. Adebayo had 18 points on eight of 13 attempts. Butler had eight on 25% shooting.
In the third quarter, Jokić fractured the visiting advantage by exploiting mismatches of Vincent stuck on his hip and backing down Adebayo from the perimeter to cup for a hook with a putback.
Miami multiple times tried to get actions going in the paint, but Michael Porter Jr. and Jokić’s tentacles caused eight misses in the box.
In the fourth quarter, Spoelstra made a dreadful mistake by inserting Cody Zeller for a minute. Miami was up a point, but within multiple possessions, he was attacked in the paint, and his overhelping on a drive gave away the Heat’s advantage as Murray canned a left-wing trifecta.
Suddenly, JB turned from Alfred the Butler into Playoff Jimmy as he hit two 3-pointers, a pull-up in the post, plus five free throws. But as Miami was up one with 90 seconds left, Bruce Brown tracked down an offensive rebound and laid it up off the glass, giving Denver the lead.
Miami engaged in the free throw formality, but it was too late. The Denver Nuggets won the 2023 NBA championship. It was the first time the organization had been in the title round since the 1976 ABA Finals when losing to the New York Nets in six games.
At the postgame presser, Malone said his team isn’t satisfied with the outcome, but it’s looking towards more.
“The last step after being a champion is to be a dynasty, “ Malone said. “So we’re not satisfied. We accomplished something this franchise has never done before, but we have a lot of young talented players in that locker room, and I think we just showed through 16 Playoff wins what we’re capable of on the biggest stage in the world…”
Porter, who at 23 had his third back surgery, arrived at the speakers table next, reeking of champagne and asking someone in the room to join him up front. There were no takers. He said adjustments were made, but being a close-out game, the intensity level was the most significant change.
“It was physical, people were missing shots, it wasn’t a pretty basketball game, but that’s what winning a championship is all about,” Porter said. “You got to be able to win in many different ways… It’s just about winning.”
Caldwell-Pope was next. He said it was amazing to have the Nuggets get back to its first Finals since 1976.
“I’m excited to just be a part of the history that we made tonight,” Caldwell-Pope said.
While KCP was answering another scribe’s inquiry, Jokić arrived and informed him his media availability had concluded by affectionately pouring a beer on his head.
When the Joker took the stage, he was asked about the emotions in his journey, going from pick #41 in round two of the 2014 Draft to NBA champ and Finals MVP. He said, “It’s good. We did a job. I think we played the best basketball in the Postseason…It’s a great journey, the 41st pick, but to be honest, that doesn’t matter. When you’re here, you’re a player, and they have [seven] guys that are not even drafted [who are] contributing for them to win.”
The parade will pass through Denver Thursday.