DENVER — Confetti flying in Denver. The Nuggets passing around the NBA championship trophy.
Those scenes that, for decades, seemed impossible, then more recently started feeling inevitable, finally turned into reality Monday night.
The Nuggets outlasted the Miami Heat 94-89 in an ugly, frantic Game 5 that did nothing to derail Nikola Jokic, who bailed out his teammates with 28 points and 16 rebounds on a night when nothing else seemed to work.
Jokic won the Bill Russell trophy as the NBA Finals MVP — an award that certainly has more meaning to him than the two overall MVPs he won in 2021 and '22.
“We are not in it for ourselves, we are in it for the guy next to us,” Jokic said. “And that’s why this (means) even more.”
Denver’s clincher was a gruesome grind.
Unable to shake the tenacious Heat or the closing-night jitters, the Nuggets missed 20 of their first 22 3-pointers. They missed seven of their first 13 free throws. They led by seven late, before Miami’s Jimmy Butler went off, scoring eight straight points to give the Heat a one-point lead with 2:45 left.
Butler made two more free throws with 1:58 remaining to help Miami regain a one-point lead. Then, Bruce Brown got an offensive rebound and tip-in to give the Nuggets the lead for good.
Trailing by three with 15 seconds left, Butler jacked up a 3, but missed it. Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made two free throws each to put the game out of reach and clinch the title for Denver.
Butler finished with 21 points.
Ugly as it was, the aftermath was something the Nuggets and their fans could all agree was beautiful. There were fireworks exploding outside Ball Arena at the final buzzer. Denver is the home of the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in the franchise’s 47 years in the league.
“It was ugly and we couldn’t make shots, but at the end we figured it out,” Jokic said. “I am just happy we won the game.”
The Heat were, as coach Erik Spoelstra promised, a gritty, tenacious bunch. But their shooting wasn’t great, either. Bam Adebayo had 20 for the Heat, but Miami shot 34% from the floor and 25% from 3. Until Butler went off, he was 2 for 13 for eight points.
The Heat, who survived a loss in the play-in tournament and became only the second No. 8 seed to make it to the finals, insisted they weren’t into consolation prizes.
They played like they expected to win, and for a while during this game, which was settled as much by players diving onto the floor as sweet-looking jump shots, it looked like they would.
The Nuggets, who came in shooting 37.6% from 3 for the series, shot 18% in this one. They committed 14 turnovers. Even with the clutch shots from Brown and Caldwell-Pope, they only went 13 for 23 from the line.
The tone of the game was set with 2:51 left in the first quarter, when Jokic got his second foul and joined Aaron Gordon on the bench. Jeff Green and Jamal Murray, who finished with 14 points and eight assists on an off night, joined them there, too.
It made the Nuggets tentative on both sides of the court for the rest of the half. Somehow, after shooting 6.7% from 3 — the worst first half in the history of the finals (10-shot minimum) they only trailed by seven.
True to the Nuggets’ personality, they kept pressing, came at their opponent in waves and figured out how to win a game that went against their type. Their beautiful game turned into a slugfest, but they figured it out nonetheless.
“That’s why basketball is a fun sport,” Jokic said. “It’s a live thing. You cannot say, ‘This is going to happen.’ There are so many factors. I’m just happy that we won the game.”
It felt almost perfect that an unheralded and once-chubby second-round draft pick from Serbia would be the one to lift Denver to the top of a league that, for decades, has been dominated by superstars, first-round draft picks and players who lead the world in sneaker and jersey sales.
Over their near five-decade stay in the league, the Nuggets have been the epitome of a lovable NBA backbencher — at times entertaining, adorned by rainbows on their uniforms and headlined by colorful characters on the floor and bench. But never quite good enough to break through against the biggest stars and better teams to the east, west and south of them.
Before this season, there were only two teams founded before 1980 — the Nuggets and Clippers — that had never been to an NBA Finals. The Nuggets took their name off that list, then joined San Antonio as the second original ABA team to capture the NBA’s biggest prize. The other two ABAers, the Pacers and Nets, have been to the finals but lost.
It was the Joker’s blossoming into a do-everything force — even before Monday, he was the first player to record 500 points, 250 rebounds and 150 assists in a single postseason — that made the Nuggets a team to watch. Not everybody did. A shift to winning couldn’t change Denver’s location on the map — in a weird time zone in flyover territory — and it didn’t shift everyone’s view of the Nuggets.
Even in Denver.
There’s little doubt that this has always been a Broncos-first sort of town. No single Denver victory will outshine the day in 1998 when John Elway broke through and that team’s owner, Pat Bowlen, held the Lombardi Trophy high and declared: “This one’s for John!”
But this one? It doesn’t take a back seat to much. It’s for every Dan (Issel), David (Thompson), Doug (Moe) or Dikembe (Mutombo) who ever came up short or got passed over for a newer, shinier model with more glitter and more stars.
For the first time in 47 seasons, nobody in the NBA shines brighter than the Nuggets.
“The fans in this town are unbelievable,” team owner Stan Kroenke said. “It means a lot to us to get this done.”