LOS ANGELES — Aaron Gordon didn’t quite know what to do with himself when the final buzzer sounded.
His adrenaline kept him on edge. He looked around and gave hugs and handshakes to a few Los Angeles Lakers players. He hugged his teammates who came off the bench. It all seemed like a fog — like everyone in Crypto.com Arena moved in slow motion. The Denver Nuggets had just beaten the Lakers 113-111 to advance to the first NBA Finals in franchise history. Gordon had just blocked LeBron James’ shot that would have tied the game. The Western Conference title T-shirts were being distributed and the awards ceremony was hastily being set up.
All Gordon could think about at the moment was … there has to be more to do.
“I was almost in shock a little bit,” Gordon said. “I was like, ‘Are we sure there’s no more time on the clock? Are we sure we don’t have another quarter to play or another game to play?’ Then it’s like, ‘Oh no, we won.’ It’s time to get up out of there.”
On Monday night, the Nuggets team that from Day 1 separated itself from the remainder of the Western Conference, broke through the glass ceiling everyone set for it. This Nuggets team, the one built around the incredible talents of Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, finally got to the place it had been openly and brazenly talking about since this season started.
This team has made no bones about its potential upside; a team that’s been championship or bust from the very moment training camp started. The Nuggets talked, and a lot of us refused to listen. And maybe that was for good reason. After all, this Nuggets team was thoroughly beaten last season in the first round by the Golden State Warriors. Two years ago, Denver was swept out of the second round by the Phoenix Suns. Murray participated in neither of those series, because of the torn ACL that cost him almost two years. The skeptics were always there.
A common refrain was that Jokić was too susceptible defensively in pick-and-roll coverage. The Nuggets were too flashy, too pretty and not gritty enough. They didn’t defend enough. What happens when the Nuggets get to the postseason and face Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, or LeBron, or the gauntlet in the Western Conference that this team could never get through?
Throughout this postseason, this Denver team has played every possession on both sides of the floor with grit and a chip on its collective shoulders that signaled an intent to take the criticism and throw it back at the critics. When the Nuggets defeated the Lakers in Game 1, and a national narrative hinted at the Lakers finding a way to exploit Denver, head coach Michael Malone made sure to point that out after Game 2.
For most of the postseason, when these Nuggets were asked what they have proven to the masses after every win, the Nuggets scoffed and said nothing, and asked the media just why they haven’t been watching. Tucked in the Rocky Mountains, the Nuggets changed so significantly from last year to this season that not many outside of the locals paid enough attention.
The addition of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was panned by multiple media members. The addition of Bruce Brown was never looked at as a truly impactful signing. Drafting Christian Braun — nice pick, good kid, but is he really making a difference in a playoff setting?
Those moves ended up giving the Nuggets the kind of complete roster that Jokić and Murray never had around them. It gave them an ability defensively to insulate Jokic from guys getting to the basket off the dribble. And those guys turned out to be offensively impactful in a playoff setting. But more importantly, Murray has returned to the Murray he was before the injury. And Jokić went from being one of a handful of best players in the world to being definitively the best player in the world.
Seriously. Is there even a credible argument for anyone else at this point?
“I think it starts with a belief in themselves, but probably more in the collective,” Malone said. “I’ve seen that belief all year long. We knew that in the middle of December when we ascended to first place in the Western Conference. Through the ups and downs, we never lost first place in the West. To beat this team in the Western Conference finals, and to get the first sweep in franchise history, it means a lot. But I speak for 17 players in that locker room and then the entire organization. We are not satisfied. We’re going to enjoy it for a moment, and it’s going to be a hell of a plane ride home. But we have more work to do.”
What spoke volumes on Monday night was the force James played with, scoring 40 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and handing out nine assists. It was one of those classic LeBron playoff moments that he’s been known for over the course of two decades. He hit the Nuggets with haymaker after haymaker. He scored at will and then found his teammates when the Nuggets began to double him. To put it simply, he put together an all-time-level performance.
And Jokić matched it.
He scored 30 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and handed out 13 assists. He scored the game-winning points, driving past and bodying Anthony Davis easily in the paint, as he did at will all series. But it was more than that with Jokić. It was his impact. For as much as James took Monday night’s game by the throat, Jokic did the same. Through 20 years, when James decides to take over a moment and make it his, there have been very few capable of denying him, and Jokic was able to do that.
For as perfectly as these Nuggets are constructed around Jokić and Murray, Jokić making yet another leap and becoming the best player in the sport is what has meant so much to Denver. He’s been silly good this postseason, almost beyond description.
In the conference finals, he averaged almost 28 points, to go along with 14.5 rebounds and 11.8 assists. He absolutely obliterated Davis when the Lakers needed AD to play Jokić close to have any chance at winning the series. Jokić winning that matchup by such a wide margin became a crater that not even James throwing up a 40-point near triple-double could overcome. Jokić scoring the game-winning bucket of the series by going through Davis served as a sidenote to how the series went between the two.
“I think you’re just happy that you won a game and you beat a really really good team,” Jokić said. “I think it could have gone both ways, every game was so close. Anyone could have won it. But we were just happy to win the game and the series, especially when we were down 15 — to come back and win the game. There were a lot of emotions.”
These Nuggets have been adamant that their work is not done. They will probably draw the Miami Heat in the finals. The Heat are playing well enough that they could be Denver’s best test of the postseason. But we shouldn’t dismiss how dominant the Nuggets have been to this point. They defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves in five games. They beat the Phoenix Suns in six games. On Monday night they completed their first postseason sweep in franchise history.
Denver’s window is now. The stars have aligned for a team that’s tinkered and stayed patient and built a bond around Jokić, Murray and Malone. They were the best team in the Western Conference during the regular season. They have been by far the best team in the postseason.
And now, they are four wins away from achieving their ultimate goal.
(Top photo of Denver Nuggets clinching Western Conference Finals: Kirby Lee / USA Today)