LOS ANGELES – The Denver Nuggets played with disruption on their minds in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.
Everybody on that tight-knit bench Monday night seemed to know their team had never reached the NBA Finals, had never swept a playoff opponent and had never beaten the Los Angeles Lakers in a postseason series. The Nuggets have given their fans comparatively little to cheer in their 47 seasons in the NBA, and they've rarely seized the basketball world's attention despite a solid list of famous alumni.
But with their confidence soaring in the midst of a dominant playoff run, these Nuggets were determined to secure their latest bit of history Monday night. They kept that attitude even after LeBron James dropped a 31-point first half that could have made a lesser team with a 3-0 series lead start thinking about Game 5 back home.
“Yeah, that’s never been our mentality,” Aaron Gordon said. “That hasn’t been our mentality all year, like, to concede. We’re not that type of team.”
After Nikola Jokic conjured his latest triple-double playoff masterpiece and Gordon blocked James' shot at the buzzer, the Nuggets had torn up their franchise's history and written a bold new chapter with a clinching 113-111 victory.
They're the first Denver team to earn the right to play for an NBA title, and this often-overlooked franchise will be favored to win when the Nuggets get back on the court in nine days. No wonder the conference championship celebration had a little extra energy, with the Nuggets mobbing Jokic after he received his conference finals MVP trophy.
High-scoring Jamal Murray took a moment to savor the slow growth of a team that has finally blossomed into something beautiful and sturdy.
“We just want to make the most of the opportunity,” Murray said. “First Nuggets team to do this and that. We want to go all the way and stay locked in. I think our chemistry is at an all-time high, the way we play, the way we read the game without even speaking. We talk that language on the court. It’s just beautiful basketball, honestly. It’s so fun to play with this team and with (Jokic) and with the coaching staff that has groomed us into the team that we are.”
This group led by Jokic and Murray has surpassed all the greats who have worn the many, many uniforms of the team that started life as the ABA’s Denver Rockets in 1967. The Nuggets had plenty of winning seasons and kept their fans entertained while frequently playing a high-octane, high-altitude style of ball in the NBA, but they never got closer to a title than the conference finals.
The team that showcased David “Skywalker” Thompson, Alex English, Dan Issel, Dikembe Mutombo, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Carmelo Anthony to the world finally has the chance to hang its first championship banner, thanks to a Serbian second-round pick, a Canadian sharpshooter and its talented, selfless supporting cast.
“It’s just a great mixture,” Gordon said. “It’s a great group of guys. The camaraderie is there, the chemistry is there, the talent is there, the IQ is there and the unselfishness is there. It’s really a brotherhood. We really do it for the person next to us. It’s rare in this league to find a team that has a bunch of unselfish guys that buy in and really do it for the man next to them.”
The Nuggets are one of 11 active NBA franchises without a title, and three additional teams haven’t won it in their current city. Denver lost the 1976 ABA Finals to the New York Nets in its only other championship series, but this June certainly looks like the Mile High City's turn to celebrate.
Coach Michael Malone shared warm hugs after the game with Nuggets owners Stan and Josh Kroenke, who are about to have the third team in their Kroenke Sports & Entertainment portfolio playing for a championship in the past 16 months: The Los Angeles Rams won the Super Bowl in February 2022, and the Colorado Avalanche claimed the Stanley Cup four months later. Arsenal is also finishing second in the Premier League in what could be its best season in nearly two decades.
“We all know in this business, patience is not a word that comes easily,” Malone said. “For them to have patience after that third-year, 46-win effort that came up just short of the playoffs (in 2017-18), they saw something in Nikola, in Jamal, in myself, and allowed it to come to fruition. That’s a rarity in this business.”
Jokic averaged a triple-double in the Western Conference finals, putting up 27.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 11.8 assists in the four-game series, and he did it against Anthony Davis, one of the world’s best defensive players. Murray had four consecutive 25-point games, highlighted by his vicious 23-point fourth quarter in Game 2.
While the Nuggets have a stellar roster, they're built around their star duo that's just four wins away from history after outdueling James and Davis.
“Ooh, that’s a bad duo,” Gordon said with a grin. “Those are bad boys right there. I mean, you could stack those two up with anybody. When I say anybody, I mean anybody. You put those two up against anybody, you’re going to have a hell of a fight.”