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Tryst with history: Nikola Jokic and Denver Nuggets conquer the NBA Finals

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Denver’s sporting heritage may not boast grandeur like Los Angeles or New York’s do, but the city has had its trysts with success.

Its laurels, though, could be traced back to just two teams. The Broncos, who’ve won three Super Bowls, and the Avalanche, who’ve brought as many Stanley Cups to the Mile High City.

On June 12, the Nuggets wrote a new chapter for Denver. Led by Nikola Jokić, the Nuggets trumped the Miami Heat in the fifth game of the NBA Finals to end their 47-year wait for coronation as NBA champions.

For a finale expected to peak towards the perfect crescendo — a seven-game thriller — the Nuggets’ swift capping off with a gentleman’s sweep (4-1 series win) rendered the result a far cry from expectations.

The Nuggets walked in as the favourites. On their way to the finals, they played like the top seeds in the Western Conference. Dominant. Unerring. Relentless. They started by mauling the Minnesota Timberwolves 4-1. In the semifinals, they doused any championship hopes that Kevin Durant brought to the Phoenix Suns before sweeping LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers to get a chance at the title.

It was the Heat, however, who were making headlines.

Having barely survived the scrimmage of the Play-In tournament, the expectations from Miami were modest. But they made heads turn in the first round by toppling the No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks. They powered through to a 4-2 victory in the semifinals against the New York Knicks. Going into the Eastern finals against the second-seeded Boston Celtics, the Heat were given a three-percent chance by ESPN Analytics. Coach Erik Spoelstra’s side needed the full quota of seven games, but they got the job done.

In the 77 years of the NBA’s existence, the New York Knicks was the lone eighth seed to play in the finals. The Heat had not only emulated the feat but also shown promise to go one better. They were scripting the fairytale ending.

When ousted by the Celtics in the 2022 Eastern Conference finals, Jimmy Butler, with his trademark deadpan delivery, asserted, “We’ll be back.” The Heat kept their word, and it was Butler orchestrating the ascent with his swashbuckling performances.

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) moves the ball while defended by Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent, rear left, during the second half of Game 5 of basketball’s NBA Finals, Monday, June 12, 2023, in Denver.

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) moves the ball while defended by Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent, rear left, during the second half of Game 5 of basketball’s NBA Finals, Monday, June 12, 2023, in Denver.
| Photo Credit:
AP

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Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) moves the ball while defended by Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent, rear left, during the second half of Game 5 of basketball’s NBA Finals, Monday, June 12, 2023, in Denver.
| Photo Credit:
AP

The Heat had fallen agonisingly short of their fourth title in the 2020 finals when the Lakers beat them 4-2. The second shot arrived three years later.

A side comprising as many as nine undrafted players somehow found ways to win. Was anyone going to stop them?

The answer, in retrospect, of course, turned out to be Jokić . The towering Serbian, who gobbled up record after record in the
playoffs, proved to be the game-changer against the Heat as well.

Having already bettered Wilt Chamberlain’s 56-year-old record of seven triple-doubles in a single postseason during the West finals against the Lakers, the 27-year-old notched a record-extending ninth triple-double in the opening game. With 27 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists, — Jokić steered the Nuggets to a 104-93 win and a one-nil advantage in the best-of-seven series.

Game 2 was again at Denver’s Ball Arena, and the Nuggets were undefeated at their home court in nine games. The odds were lopsided in Denver’s favour.

In a desperate attempt to contain the Nuggets’ offence, the Heat went with the frowned-upon zone defence in the second game. Coach Spoelstra’s side was one of the few teams in the league to rely on the system during the regular season.

It worked. Despite Jokić hitting 41 points!

The Nuggets scoring juggernaut that produced a 53-29 regular season operated peculiarly. More than the centre’s prolific shooting, the system was held together by his role as a provider.

The Heat jammed the fulcrum. They prevented Jokić from passing to his teammates, and the Nuggets’ auxiliary offence collapsed. The result was a 111-108 road win for the Heat, which swayed the home-court advantage in its favour.

The underdog story was indeed unravelling. The Heat had stuck a foot in the door. They had already triumphed against the Eastern top seed. Could they pull another rabbit out of their hat?

The opportunity was there. And then it wasn’t. The Nuggets reverted to the Heat’s zone defence with its two-man pick-and-roll offence, which had been perfected by Jokić and Jamal Murray.

In their third meeting, the duo became the first pair of teammates to record triple-doubles in an NBA Finals. They combined for 66 points, 31 rebounds, and 20 assists and got back the home-court advantage their team had squandered earlier.

Unlike the regular season, which offers 82 chances for teams to work their combinations out, the NBA Finals offer minimal scope for error. The momentum that could hang in the balance perpetually over the seven games can also tip towards one team in the span of a single possession.

One block by LeBron James on Andre Igoudala’s layup in the 2016 finals tipped off the Cleveland Cavaliers’ comeback from a 3-1 deficit.

The fate of the 2023 finals was sealed on two occasions. First, the productive association between Murray and Jokic in game three. The second was Bruce Brown’s points off the bench in the fourth.

The Nuggets played the fourth game with a slender 2-1 lead and kept ahead during the game as well. But Jokić ran into a new problem this time—foul trouble. With five personal fouls, the Nuggets’ nucleus sat out for five minutes and 15 seconds in the last quarter. And the Heat, seeing the opportunity at hand, came within striking distance.

Team work: The Denver Nuggets celebrate after winning the 2023 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at Ball Arena.

Team work: The Denver Nuggets celebrate after winning the 2023 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at Ball Arena.
| Photo Credit:
Reuters

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Team work: The Denver Nuggets celebrate after winning the 2023 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at Ball Arena.
| Photo Credit:
Reuters

Brown, the 42nd pick by the Detroit Pistons in the 2018 draft, who was traded to the Brooklyn Nets, which then sent him into free agency before the Nuggets picked him up, came to save the day. With his 21 points, 11 of which came in the final period, Brown swept away any hope that the Heat had of pulling level.

Game five brought the first chance to close out the series and seal the title. The Nuggets had a few hiccups. Fluency abandoned them in the first half as their shooting efficiency went AWOL. But that provided another chance for Jokić to flex his superiority and bail the side out in the second half.

‘The Joker’, as he is called by his fans, collected 16 boards and 28 points in the title-clinching game. As expected, he won the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP award.

For Miami, it was another ‘so close yet so far’ season. Butler’s razzmatazz and Bam Adebayo’s dogged, brute contributions in the paint proved insufficient. In Miami’s run to the finals, Gabe Vincent carved out an important place on the team’s offence. Such was his influence that he lost the Eastern Conference Finals MVP award to Butler by a solitary vote. Vincent’s streak of poor shooting outputs in the series was another deterrent for the team.

As the celebrations kicked off in Denver, the Nuggets’ coach, Michael Malone, was quick reminded the raucous crowd, “We’re not going to settle for one.”

A majority of the Nuggets players have tangent deals in place. The front office would want to fine-tune a few in the postseason, but the overall lineup gives all the indications that Denver is in the nascent stages of a dynasty.

When the league returns for the new season, Ball Arena will have its first banner unfurled, where Jokić and his class of 23 will find a permanent place.

Irrespective of the team living up to the expectations of a dynasty, Jokić & Co. will always parallel Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in 1991 and Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks in 2011—iconic teams who brought joy to a city.

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