NBA Finals: Denver Nuggets are champions for the first time in franchise history

It didn’t come easy — then again, nothing you’ve waited half a century for ever comes easy — but the Denver Nuggets are now NBA champions after beating the Miami Heat 94 to 89 Monday night to close out the NBA Finals after winning four games to Miami’s one.

It was fitting. Game 5 in Ball Arena — at altitude, amongst a raucous crowd — was the climactic slug fest this story deserved.

The match started with a scoring frenzy by the Nuggets and “an early avalanche here in Denver” — as Mike Breen so poetically put it, as if calling upon the Colorado team, the NHL’s Avalanche, that won a title in the same building just a year ago.

But what at first felt like would be a comfortable Game 5 celebration win quickly became a boxing match. The Miami Heat went on an 18-point swing that put Denver down by as many as 10. And from there, the Nuggets had to climb out of the hole to meet destiny.

The 3s weren’t dropping. The free throws weren’t landing. But the defensive tenacity, the audacious rebounding and a kinetic desperation to bring the title home kept the Nuggets in the game. After an early 1st Quarter lead, the Nuggets would play from behind until finally taking it back late in the third.

And then came the 4th quarter. The energy was “helter skelter,” as Breen put it.

Tony Gorman/CPR News
Late in the 4th quarter of Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Ball Arena.

“Those last three or four minutes felt like a scene out of a movie,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Two teams in the center of the ring throwing haymaker after haymaker, and it’s not necessarily shot making. It’s the efforts.”

Unable to shake the tenacious Heat or their own closing-night jitters, the Nuggets missed 20 of their first 22 3-pointers. They missed seven of their first 13 free throws. Yet, Denver figured out how to close out the series on their home floor. And Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were 4 for 4 at the end while Denver was salting away the win.

Star Nikola Jokic had 28 points and 16 rebounds. He guided Denver through the chaos and a late flurry from Miami's Jimmy Butler to squeeze past the Heat for a frantic victory. They overcame all of it to take a late seven-point lead, only to see Miami’s Jimmy Butler go off.

Butler scored eight straight points to help the Heat take an 87-86 lead with 2:45 left after trailing by seven. He 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 made two free throws to put the game out of reach and bring the title to Denver for the first time in the franchise's 47 years in the league.

Butler finished with 21 points for the Heat.

Jamal Murray, Jimmy Butler
Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) shoots a 3-point basket over Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler, left, during the second half of Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals, Monday, June 12, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

This was an ugly, frenetic affair, but the aftermath was something the Nuggets and their fans could all agree was beautiful. 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 and 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 more on the ground than in the air, it looked like they would.

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. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

The Nuggets, who came in shooting 37.6% from 3 for the series, shot 18% in this one. They committed 14 turnovers.

With 2:51 left in the first quarter, Jokic got his second foul and joined Aaron Gordon on the bench.

The Nuggets were 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.

Nikola Jokic, Bam Adebayo
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, front left, shots over Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo, front right, during the second half of Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals, Monday, June 12, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

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 out how to win anyway.

“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.”

“What I was most proud about is, throughout the game, if your offense is not working and your shots are not falling, you have to dig in on the defensive end,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

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 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 won'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.

“You live vicariously through these guys,” said Denver great LaPhonso Ellis, as he pointed to the big scoreboard announcing the Nuggets as champions. “And to see that there, ‘2023 NBA Champions’ here in Denver, that's so cool, and I'm honored to be a part of it."

As Breen – who marked his 100th NBA Finals call in Game 5 – put it, the Nuggets are “on top of the Rocky Mountains and on top of the NBA mountain.”

The Mile High City is on top of the basketball world.

Downtown Denver is full of fireworks and crowded streets

The official Denver Nuggets Champions Celebration will be held Thursday, June 15, according to the City of Denver, which announced the parade shortly after Monday night's victory.

The Denver Nuggets Champions Parade will begin at 10 a.m. at Union Station, 17th and Wynkoop Streets), proceed down 17th Street to Broadway, and then travel south on Broadway to Civic Center Park.

Jamal Murray, Caleb Martin
Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) tries to shoot over Miami Heat forward Caleb Martin (16) during the first half of Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals, Monday, June 12, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

But for people who can't wait until Thursday, the streets of Denver are already full of celebration with thousands of fans flooding the downtown.

Matthew Stuart from Australia has been a Nuggets fan for 10 years. He traveled 18 hours to watch the game.

"Most Australian fans love NBA, but they go for the bigger market teams," he said. "Super nice to see a small market team finally get it done."

“It’s insane man, I’ve been watching since Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson," Chase Cook of Denver said. "It’s a great feeling man. Seeing this all come together, I couldn’t ask for a better night.”

This story will be updated.

CPR Editor Alejandro Alonso Galva contributed to this report.
AP National Writer Eddie Pells contributed to this report.
Denverite Reporter Isaac Vargas contributed to this report.

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