LOS ANGELES – The Denver Nuggets are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history after completing a four-game sweep with a 113-111 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals on Monday.
The Nuggets sealed the last gasp from the Lakers. “I thought we fought as hard as we could,” Lakers coach Darwin Hamm said.
Now, Denver awaits the winner of the Eastern Conference Finals, in which the Miami Heat hold a 3-0 series lead over the Boston Celtics. Game 4 in the East is Tuesday at Miami.
For the Nuggets, Monday’s win capped a years-long process in which their core players grew together, faced challenging injuries and questions about their ability to even compete in the West. The team’s best player, center Nikola Jokic, won the league’s Most Valuable Player award twice, but only made it to the conference finals once.
Jokic was named Western Conference Finals MVP. He had 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists on Monday.
Denver has never reached the NBA Finals in its 47 seasons in the league. The longest streak now belongs to the Sacramento Kings, dating back to 1951 when they were called the Rochester Royals. Pelicans, Timberwolves, Clippers, Grizzlies and Hornets Never was.
Denver lost star guard Jamal Murray in April 2021 when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Nuggets coach Michael Malone, the day after the injury, tearfully asked Murray if the Nuggets would trade him, calling himself “damaged goods.”
“I hugged him,” Malone said. “I said: ‘No, you’re ours. We love you. We’re going to help you come back and you’re going to be a better player for it.
Murray missed that season and all of 2021-22. In this year’s playoffs, Denver’s patience paid off.
Murray is starting to look like the player he was before the injury, and Jokic continues to play at an elite level, perfectly complemented by Denver’s talented role players.
The Nuggets rose to first place in the West in December and have never been out of the top spot. In the playoffs, they defeated the Timberwolves 4–1 in the first round and the Phoenix Suns 4–2 in the second round. Despite Denver’s dominance all season, oddsmakers don’t want them to win the championship. The Nungs embraced it.
“We’re underdogs,” guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “We don’t get enough credit for what we do.” He continued: “Not much is said, we take it personally. We harness that energy and prove everyone wrong.
Even after the first two rounds, few thought the Lakers were dangerous enough to finally be the team to topple the Nuggets.
That belief in the Lakers only grew during the playoffs.
For a while, the Lakers seemed doomed due to roster issues and injuries to their stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
They started the season with a 2-10 record. In December, when the Nuggets were cementing their place in the West, the Lakers were 13th.
Guard Russell Westbrook, who struggled with the Lakers last season, is still not fit and has been removed from the starting lineup after three games. Davis injured his leg on December 16 against the Nuggets and missed 20 games while he recovered. Shortly after Davis returned, James missed several games with a leg injury that some doctors advised would require surgery.
But changes at the trade deadline in February helped. The Lakers dumped Westbrook and brought in role players — Jarrett Vanderbilt, D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley. They also traded for Rui Hachimura in January.
By the end of the regular season they had risen to seventh in the West and qualified for the playoffs by defeating Minnesota in overtime in the play-in contest. In the first round, they silenced a sensational Memphis team that had spent most of the season in the top three in the West, defeating them 4-2. They then defeated the defending champion Golden State Warriors 4-2 in a dominant second-round sweep.
All the while, Hamm, their first-year head coach, reminded them how few expected them to even make the playoffs.
But the Nuggets turned out to be a different kind of opponent. They are more cohesive, less dramatic and stronger at center than Memphis and Golden State.
In the Lakers’ first two series, their opponents verbally attacked them when Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks called James, 38, or when the Warriors accused them of missing favorable calls. The Nuggets took a different approach, showing respect off the court until the end.
“I’m not going to say I’m scared, but I’m worried,” Jokic said after Denver’s Game 3 win. “Because they have LeBron on the other side, and he can do everything.”
James was more erratic in this series than he has been in the past. He went 0 for 10 from 3-point range in the first two games, made costly mistakes late in Game 1 and was ridiculed for missing a dunk in Game 2. He has carried the team so far in Davis’ postseason, but the Nuggets haven’t. Don’t let him do it again.