Nuggets Sweep Lakers to Head to First N.B.A. Finals
LOS ANGELES — As the Denver Nuggets’ historic celebration began, LeBron James, the Los Angeles Lakers’ star forward, walked off his home court, his face expressionless.
On Monday night, the Nuggets stamped out the final gasps from the Lakers, who had kept their season alive for weeks after it was presumed finished. Even after the final buzzer, some of Denver’s players couldn’t believe the series was over and that they had actually done it.
The Nuggets are going to the N.B.A. finals for the first time in franchise history after completing a four-game sweep of the Lakers in the Western Conference finals with a 113-111 win on Monday.
Denver will face the winner of the Eastern Conference finals, in which the Miami Heat have a 3-0 series lead over the Boston Celtics. Game 4 in the East is Tuesday in Miami.
Nuggets center Nikola Jokic was named the most valuable player of the Western Conference finals. He smiled warmly as he held his trophy and his teammates surrounded him on the court and patted his head. He had 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists on Monday.
“Even when you guard him for one of the best possessions that you think you can guard him, he puts the ball behind his head Larry Bird style and shoots it 50 feet in the air and it goes in,” James said, then he smiled wryly. “Like he did four or five times this series.” He added, as he took off his hat and tipped it: “So you do like this to him.”
Denver had not been to the N.B.A. finals in its 47 seasons in the league. Now the longest drought belongs to the Sacramento Kings, who have not been since 1951, when they were known as the Rochester Royals. The Pelicans, Timberwolves, Clippers, Grizzlies and Hornets have never been.
“I’m really happy for the guys and for the organization and just how we fight through,” Jokic said. “I remember the days when nobody was in our — you could hear the ball bounce on the floor and there was no fans.”
For the Nuggets, the win on Monday culminated a yearslong process in which their core players grew together, weathered challenging injuries and faced questions about their ability to even compete in the West. Jokic won the league’s M.V.P. Award twice, but could get to the conference finals only once.
Denver lost the star guard Jamal Murray in April 2021, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Nuggets Coach Michael Malone said the day after the injury Murray tearfully asked if the Nuggets would trade him, calling himself “damaged goods.”
“I hugged him,” Malone said. “I said: ‘Hell no, you’re ours. We love you. We’re going to help you get back, and you’re going to be a better player for it.’”
Murray missed the rest of that season and all of 2021-22. In this year’s playoffs, Denver’s patience paid off.
Murray began looking like the player he was before the injury and Jokic continued playing at an elite level, perfectly complemented by Denver’s cast of talented role players.
The Nuggets rose to first in the West in December and never fell out of the top spot. In the playoffs, they beat 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 did not favor it to win the championship. The Nuggets embraced that.
“We’re the underdogs,” guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “We don’t get enough credit for what we do.” He continued: “Not being talked about a lot, we take that personal. We just use that energy, continue to prove everybody wrong.”
Even after the first two rounds, some thought the Lakers were dangerous enough to be the team that finally upended the Nuggets.
That confidence in the Lakers had developed only during the playoffs.
For a while, the Lakers seemed doomed because of roster issues and injuries to their stars, James and Anthony Davis. They began the season with a 2-10 record. In December, when the Nuggets were solidifying their spot atop the West, the Lakers were in 13th.
Guard Russell Westbrook, who struggled with the Lakers last season, still wasn’t fitting in and was pulled from the starting lineup after three games. Davis injured his foot on Dec. 16 against the Nuggets and missed 20 games while he recovered. Not long after Davis returned, James missed several games with a foot injury that some doctors he consulted said would require surgery.
But changes at the trading deadline in February helped. The Lakers shipped out Westbrook and brought in role players — Jarred Vanderbilt, D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley. They had also traded for Rui Hachimura in January.
They rose to seventh in the West by the end of the regular season, and beat Minnesota in overtime in the play-in tournament to secure the seventh seed for the playoffs. In the first round, they quieted a boisterous Memphis team, which had spent most of the season in the top three in the West, beating the Grizzlies, 4-2. Then they upset the defending champion Golden State Warriors, 4-2, dominating them in the clinching game of the second round.
All the while, Darvin Ham, their first-year head coach, reminded them how few people expected them to even make the playoffs.
But the Nuggets turned out to be a different type of opponent. They were more cohesive, less dramatic and stronger at center than Memphis and Golden State.
“We competed every night,” Ham said. “We competed every game in this series. I just told the guys to take stock of what this meant, what this feeling feels like right now, what we went through in an entire season and what we had to do to get to this point.”
In the Lakers’ first two series, their opponents sniped at them verbally, whether it was Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks calling James, 38, old, or the Warriors accusing them of flopping for favorable calls. The Nuggets took a different approach, showing deference off the court until the very end.
“I’m not going to say that 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 is capable of doing everything.”
James had looked more fallible in this series than he had 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 drew ridicule for missing a dunk in Game 2. He had dragged the team through Davis’s postseason inconsistency so far, but the Nuggets wouldn’t let him do it again.
A few hours before Monday’s game, James was going through his pregame warm-up when a group of broadcast workers staged a rehearsal for the Western Conference championship trophy presentation on the court a few yards away. James said he used that as motivation.
He scored 31 points in the first half, making all four of his first-quarter 3-point attempts.
“It was scary,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We know who LeBron is.”
James finished with 40 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists. On the game’s final play, James drove to the basket and tried to shoot a game-tying shot through a swarm of Nuggets. Murray was there, and as James gathered to shoot, Murray put both hands on the ball and didn’t let go.
“I knew I had to be there,” Murray said.
The clock expired and the Nuggets’ bench emptied in celebration.
“It’s almost like shock a little bit,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “You’re just, like, unsure, like, are you sure we don’t have more time on the clock? Are you sure we don’t have another quarter to play or another game to play? It’s just another chance at them winning? Then it’s like: ‘Oh. No. We won.’”