Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Malone and the rest of the Nuggets have made sure no one can ever question their championship credentials again.
Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared on Marc Stein’s Substack and is syndicated with permission by SB Nation. To subscribe to Marc’s Substack, sign up here:
1. No doubting Denver anymore
There was zero MVP debate once we left the regular season behind and moved into the playoffs.
There was simply no stopping Nikola Jokić and his Denver Nuggets from bringing a halt to the Miami Heat’s Cinderella ride this spring with your classic Gentleman’s Sweep of the East’s No. 8 seed.
There was no question, as nervy as it looked for much of Monday night’s clincher, which team would emerge as the NBA’s best team from a very strange 77th season for #thisleague.
All of the above, for really days now, should have been clear.
Even to the untrained eye.
The Nuggets have completed their 16-4 bulldozing through the NBA Tournament bracket, outlasting Miami in a closeout game that was as gnarly as Erik Spoelstra promised with a 94-89 victory at Ball Arena to clinch a 4-1 series demolition of the Heaters. Denver found a way to win despite a nightmarish first half that featured 1-for-15 shooting from 3-point range and 10 turnovers, ultimately making it three straight triumphs over the team known as the NBA’s grittiest after losing Game 2 at home.
Nikola Jokić — who else? — was named Finals MVP in a runaway 11-0 vote. He won’t win any MVPs for celebrations or colorful quotes, but the man is unerringly consistent.
“It’s good,” Jokić said in seemingly every postgame tweet you could find when asked how it feels to win that first championship. I’m not even sure how to start breaking down his, shall we say, restrained champagne-spraying technique captured here.
The joy all around him, though, was noisy and nonstop, from a teary Jamal Murray to Michael Malone to, most of all, Denver’s long-suffering fans.
Their team, in a way, tricked us. The Nuggets stuttered to a 7-10 finish to the regular season that made us question their playoff readiness and surmise that there just might be underlying issues with Jokić and Co. that the best teams in the league would expose.
Narrator: No. There were no issues.
More narrator: Yes. They tricked you.
So the NBA, for the fifth successive season, has a new champion. It’s the Nuggets, first-time champs, after the Warriors (2022), Bucks (2021), Lakers (2020) and Raptors (2019). We haven’t seen five different titlists in the NBA across a five-season span since your humble correspondent was just falling in love with this game and #thisleague from 1976-77 through 1980-81.
The title also ends Denver’s 47-season wait for NBA glory … and its 56-season wait when you add in the ABA years … and made an absolute mockery of the notion that these playoffs would be a pressure-packed, it’s-about-time-you-prove-it-to-us-buddy referendum on the two regular-season MVP trophies Jokić won before adding this Finals MVP to his hardware cabinet. All he did, in response, was ring up a playoff-record 10 triple-doubles and outduel a string of top big men, from Minnesota’s Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns … to Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton … to the Los Angeles Lakers’ Anthony Davis … to Miami’s Bam Adebayo.
All Jokić did, at 28, was become the first player in league history to lead all players in total points (600), rebounds (269) and assists (190) in a single postseason.
Yet this is the way, fair or not, that we always do it in the NBA. We flatly doubt you until you actually do it.
We doubted even after the 53-29 Nuggets tried for months to transmit hints of their potency. Long before that Western Conference finals sweep of LeBron James, Davis and the Lakers, Denver took possession of the top seed in the funkiest West of the 21st century way back on Jan. 17 and never relinquished it.
In early April, very late in the regular season, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban brought up the ridiculous narrative surrounding Jokić’s supposedly deficient résumé in trying to dampen some of the criticism his own star from the Balkans, Luka Dončić, has begun to face.
Unable to forget the vitriol that greeted Dirk Nowitzki at the end of seemingly every season until Nowitzki led the Mavericks to the first championship in franchise history — clinched 12 years to the day of Jokić’s breakthrough on June 12, 2011, in Miami — Cuban said: “Until you get a ring, nobody’s good enough at anything.”
In #thisleague? Sad but true.
Not that he listens too much to the external noise, but Jokić presumably won’t have to hear that again for a while. Perhaps some will try to downgrade the achievement, noting that the Nuggets became the first champion in the history of the 16-team playoffs that didn’t have to play a top-three seed en route to its crown, but one suspects such commentary won’t exactly register with the pride of Sombor, Serbia.
When informed that the Nuggets’ championship parade has been scheduled for Thursday, Jokić said at the postgame podium: “No, I need to go home.”
The Nuggets displayed uncommon patience as a franchise to finally find that parade route, sticking with the core they built mostly through the draft and waiting so long for Murray’s health to catch up to Jokić’s brilliance while backing Malone as coach for seven fruitless seasons until this one. That also doesn’t happen too often in the NBA, but the comparatively limited external scrutiny and pressure Denver has dealt with might be the blessing that comes with the lack of national attention that Malone has so often bemoaned during this run. Staying the course is far easier when you’re out of the national spotlight and distanced from the occasionally toxic discourse that even Jokić admitted he couldn’t completely tune out during the second half of the season as the MVP debate pitting him against Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid got downright nasty.
I’m not exactly sure we can proclaim that the Nuggets suddenly represent the blueprint that other NBA teams will try to copy, since so much of their success beyond continuity revolves around the 41st pick in the 2014 draft becoming an all-time great with a more feared passing eye than Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis (along with undeniably better health).
What can be said without hesitation, however, is that …
We will never again look at Jokić the same way.
We will never again look at Murray — who rumbled for 26.1 points per game in the 2023 playoffs compared to a career regular-season scoring average of 16.9 points per game — in a non-starry manner. The tandem he’s formed with Jokić is as dangerous as it gets.
We will heretofore view Malone through a different prism, too, after he joined Gregg Popovich (five), Steve Kerr (four), his Miami counterpart Erik Spoelstra (two), Frank Vogel, Nick Nurse, Tyronn Lue and Rick Carlisle as the only active coaches with a championship ring.
Even that proverbial untrained eye, as coined by Spo just days ago, can’t miss Denver’s elevation to a new stratosphere.
2. Fairy-tale ending eludes East champs
The No. 8 seed, just like in 1999 when this happened the last time, could not conquer the NBA Finals that they were never supposed to reach.
I think we can still make the case that this really was The Year of the Lower Seed in the NBA playoffs.
Seven lower-seeded teams won a series this postseason — three of them won by Miami. Those seven triumphs represent a record in the history of the 16-team playoff field, which dates to the 1983-84 season.
The New York Knicks made it to the title round in ‘99 after a regular season that was shortened to 50 games by a lockout. They lost to San Antonio in five.
The Heat eliminated the 58-win Milwaukee Bucks in five games in Round 1 and the 57-win Boston Celtics in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals after nearly becoming the first team in NBA history — in 151 tries — to squander a 3-0 lead and lose the series.
Alas, even after all that, Miami was only going all the way, against a team as deep and dangerous as these Nuggets, by shooting the ball well from deep.
The Heat shot 48.5 percent from the 3-point line (17-for-35) to steal Game 2 in Denver, but their success rate from long range dipped below 35 percent in each of the other four games in this series — all Ls. They shot a ghastly 9-for-35 on 3s in Game 5 (25.7%).
Which means it all adds up, sadly, to another painful almost for Jimmy Butler.
I’ve been calling him a top-10 player in this league since he led Miami to the Finals in the Walt Disney World bubble in Orlando in the fall of 2020, but instinct tells me that he can count on little praise from the screeching debate shows given how the Heat lost seven of their final nine playoff games after winning the first three against the favored Celtics.
You are advised, humbly, to tune out all that nonsense. It’s undeniably true that Butler rarely hit the heights in recent weeks that we saw against the Bucks in Round 1, when Butler averaged a ridiculous 37.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. What I can’t understand is how conveniently critics ignore the lingering effects of a nasty ankle sprain Butler sustained in Game 1 of the New York series. Or the considerable two-way load he shoulders on a team much thinner than Denver’s.
Butler, for the record, averaged 26.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game for the entirety of the playoffs. He was mired in an absolute Game 5 nightmare Monday night when Jimmy Buckets suddenly uncorked 13 consecutive points in the fourth quarter — helped along by one very questionable whistle — to give the Heat one last shot.
The Heat’s major mistake in these playoffs was failing to finish off the Celtics when they had the chance. The effort it took to win that series in seven games, after going up 3-0, left them absolutely gassed for this Game 5 finish when presented with a real opportunity to take the series back to South Florida.
Miami was the league’s lowest-scoring team during the regular season and fell shy of 100 points in all four games it lost to Denver.
“I wish I could have gotten it done for these guys, because they definitely deserve it,” Butler said glumly afterward, exiting his fourth Miami season with 21 points on 5-for-18 shooting.
There were probably only two players leaguewide, in truth, who can say they had a better April-to-June run than the Eastern Conference finals MVP.
Butler’s problem? Denver had both of them.
3. The Line’s Standout Lines
Game 5’s Best: As Nikola Jokić said in his postgame interview with Lisa Salters: “The job is done.” He posted another ho-hum great line in the Nuggets’ closeout Game 5 with 28 points (on 12-of-16 shooting) and 16 rebounds. His teammates led the M-V-P chant as Adam Silver handed Jokić the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Trophy.
Game 5’s Worst: The Nuggets needed everything The Joker could give because they put on an epic display of bricklaying from 3-point range, finishing 5-for-28 (17.9%) from deep after a 2-for-22 start. Miami mucked the game up just as it hoped. The Heat, unlike Jokić, just couldn’t finish the job.
4. Around the League
James Harden is routinely billed as the Rockets’ top target in free agency, but several other names have circulated, not surprisingly, given that Houston is projected to have an estimated $59 million in salary cap space this summer.
Other free agents-to-be that have been linked to the Rockets in recent weeks include Toronto’s Fred VanVleet, Brooklyn’s restricted free agent Cam Johnson, Memphis’ Dillon Brooks and the Milwaukee duo of Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez.
I have also heard that the Rockets, in the event that they are unable to lure Harden away from Philadelphia and back to Houston, plan to weigh a run at Dallas’ Kyrie Irving.
The Mavericks remain the league’s only known team with definitive interest in signing the mercurial Irving next month, but league sources say that the Rockets have been increasingly cited as a team that could (stress: could) join the bidding if Harden elects to stay with the 76ers.
To read more from my latest This Week In Basketball around-the-league notes, click here.
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Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
It’s official: The Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokić are kings of the NBA mountain.
5. It (often) pays to be No. 1
This was the 40th season of the NBA’s 16-team playoff format.
One important conclusion from those four decades: Regular season success certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes to chasing championships.
Thanks to some handy research from my Bally Sports Southwest colleague Mark Followill, we counted up that 41 No. 1 seeds in both conferences have claimed the 80 spots in the NBA Finals in the 16-team era.
And Denver is the 25th No. 1 seed of those 41 to win it all.
Yet doing the research by hand, as Followill smartly noted afterward, slammed home how it’s gotten harder for top seeds to go the distance over the past 20 years compared to the first 20 seasons of the expanded playoff field from 1983-84 through 2002-03.
Twenty-eight of those No. 1 seeds advanced to the Finals during the first two decades. The Nuggets were just the 13th No. 1 seed — 10 from the West — to reach the Finals from 2003-04 through 2022-23 and the 10th of those 13 to take the championship.
Here is a look at Mr. Followill’s handwritten research, which was then double-checked against Basketball Reference:
6. Statitudes Special
A few statistical gems from our pal Justin Kubatko and his Substack Statitudes:
- This series marked the 37th time in Finals history that a team — in this case Miami — faced a 3-1 series deficit. Only one of those 37 teams has recovered to win the championship: LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 against 73-win Golden State.
- Denver’s Jamal Murray finally fell short of a double-digit assist total in Monday night’s clinching Game 5 with eight, but not until Murray became the first player in league history to distribute at least 10 assists in each of the first four games of his Finals career. No other player had ever started their Finals career with more than two such games in a row.
- Aaron Gordon’s plus/minus reading of +29 in Game 4 was the highest figure in an NBA Finals game since Kevin Durant posted a +30 for Golden State against Cleveland in Game 4 of the 2018 NBA Finals to complete a 4-0 sweep of LeBron’s Cavs.
7. Quote Marc
“All the hard work culminated with us winning a championship. But I’ve got news for you: We’re not satisfied with one. We want more.”
— Nuggets coach Michael Malone
8. Question Marc
The 2022-23 season might be over, but you know what’s next.
The NBA Draft is June 22. Free agency starts June 30 at 6 PM ET. The games, after nine months, give way fully now to The Transaction Game.
Which means we’ll have lots to talk about.
And our favorite place to do that is Substack Chat. Every Friday afternoon, we get together for a subscribers-only Q & A. Click here for a glimpse of what we got into last Friday and click below to join us this Friday and to join chats started by subscribers … either via the Substack app or the desktop version.
9. Chatter Box
A new episode of my #thisleague UNCUT podcast alongside Turner Sports’ Chris Haynes dropped Monday morning.
Some of the topics we covered:
- Why Udonis Harlem wanted a word with @ChrisBHaynes in Miami
- The prospect of trades at the top of the June 22 NBA Draft
- Toronto’s decision to fill the league’s final coaching vacancy with Grizzlies assistant Darko Rajaković and more from the NBA coaching carousel
- Houston’s potential interest in Kyrie Irving
10. Welcome to history
My Substack turns 2 years old later this month and today brings the second installment of another historic achievement here.
There have been a lot of firsts for your humble Substack publisher this postseason. It was the first time since my very first season on the NBA beat in 1993-94 that I didn’t cover a single playoff game in person … and yet I’d like to think that I’ve found a way to write tons about what has happened leaguewide across the four rounds of postseason play while also chronicling everything else away from the tournament. I also made my first appearance on an international Finals broadcast when I joined the BBC’s coverage of Game 1 of these Finals while in England at the start of the month.
The Daily Dime and especially The Weekend Dime, many years ago, used to be staples of my NBA writing. I wanted to do something distinctive and special (and preferably nostalgic) with my NBA Finals coverage from afar — since I wouldn’t actually be attending Finals games — and my trusty editor Royce Webb suggested we reach back for the old-school concept of stuffing 10 numbered items of NBA writing into one file for peak reader convenience to see how people like it.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below or the next time we meet up in Substack Chat.
As for this experimental syndication run?
Can’t deny that this old newspaper nerd loved the sound of that.
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