So, the chaos and furore have died down, the dust has settled and the Denver Nuggets are the 2023 NBA champions.
In the end, it wasn’t a particularly tough challenge for the Nuggets and they simply outshone Miami Heat, almost all the way through the series. Just the one blip leaving them with a 4-1 win.
The Denver Nuggets started the finals as overwhelming favourites and not without good reason. They were the #1 seed in the Western Conference, whereas Miami were the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Nuggets also won 9 of the last 10 regular-season meetings between the two teams
Let’s take a look back at each of the games and throw in a few stats, not all of them are too flattering…
Denver Nuggets 104-93 Miami Heat
Ball Arena, Denver, CO
Line: Den -9.5
Game 1 winners in the finals go on to win the title nearly 70% of the time.
Warranted or not (rather clearly not as we can now see), the Denver Nuggets faced some questions heading into the franchise’s first-ever NBA Finals.
Would the biggest stage overwhelm them and prove too much?
Was a 10-day break too much for them to stay fresh?
Jokić got a triple-double in his finals debut, Jamal Murray provided 26 points and overall the Nuggets had few problems dealing with a Miami Heat team that hit the world’s worst-timed shooting cold streak.
Jamal Murray - “I think that's what the beauty of this team is, we have so many different weapons and so many different looks. You've got to guard everybody, it’s free-flowing, and it's a lot of fun.”
Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone - “That was one of my last messages to the group before our game, I reminded our group, if they didn’t know, that Miami went into Milwaukee and won Game 1. They went into the Garden in New York City and won Game 1. They won Game 1 up in Boston. So, we did not want them coming in here taking control of the series on our court.”
Denver had all the answers when it came to game time
Even as the team with minimal NBA Finals experience. Just two of their players had experienced the ultimate round of the competition before but they settled right in before the eyes of an excited, expectant home crowd.
Denver Nuggets guard Bruce Brown - “We were ready”
Jokic was dominant and fully in control, finishing the game with 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds. After waiting 47 years to make the NBA finals, the franchise finally caught fire and surely did not disappoint their fans.
Nikola Jokić said after his ninth triple-double of this year's NBA playoffs, his sixth in his last seven games:
Nikola Jokić - “The most important thing is to win a game. I’m trying to win a game in any possible way.”
He became only the 8th player to have a triple-double in Game 1 of an NBA Final. And to put it into context, none of the others were backed up by a superb by 27 points.
Aaron Gordon contributed 16 points and Michael Porter Jr. 14, building a lead of 24 points at one juncture.
Bam Adebayo finished with:
26 points and 13 rebounds
But the Miami team collectively managed only:
41% success in shooting across the game
33% from distance
Adebayo’s 25 shots were a career-high for him personally and he became only the 3rd player in its history to score 24+ points for them in Game 1 of an NBA Final series.
Gabe Vincent added 19 points, Haywood Highsmith 18, and Jimmy Butler 13 for Miami but it was not nearly enough.
Other records were tied or broken and none that boded well for the Heat. With an almost unbelievable final tally of just 2-2 free throws, they managed to equal the fewest free throws made and break the record for the fewest attempts. An unwanted record held by the Los Angeles Lakers since 1983 when they went 3-5.
Jimmy Butler - “We’ve got to attack the rim a lot more, myself included”
Bam Adebayo (tongue firmly in cheek) - “We made history”
With an 11-0 streak at the end of the 3rd, Miami Miami entered the final quarter with the deficit down to just 10 points, 84-74. One point nearer was as close as they got from there and that was that.
Gabe Vincent - “It’s a long series, first to four wins. Adjustments will be made and we will learn from this loss.”
After LeBron James in 2017, Nikola Jokić became only the second player in the last 25 years to already have 10 assists by halftime of an NBA finals game. He was 10 points and 10 assists deep by the halfway break, and the Nuggets were already up by 17 points, 59-42 even though Jokić only took three shots in the whole half.
Nikola Jokić - “I don’t need to shoot and I know I don’t need to score to affect the game”
Meanwhile, the Heat just couldn’t shoot. At all
Or at least, not until Denver was too far ahead to catch.
Caleb Martin, who was close to being awarded MVP for the Eastern Conference finals, was 1 for 7.
Max Strus was 0 for 10, and 0 for 9 on 3-pointers. This gives him the dubious distinction of being the 2nd player over the last 45 years to take that many shots without hitting even one.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra - “I didn’t even look at the box score yet, but like I said, I think the disposition, the efforts were more appropriate in the second half. But that’s not enough. It has to be for a full game, and you also have to make some plays when you’re beat.”
The loss leaves Miami Heat 1-6 in Game 1s of the NBA Finals. They even lost their opening games in the 3 seasons when they went on to win the title, going very much against the statistic of 70% of winning teams taking the first game we mentioned earlier. The only time they managed to win Game 1 of an NBA Finals, they went on to lose the series to Dallas.
Go figure, as they say
Miami Heat 111-108 Denver Nuggets
Ball Arena, Denver, CO
Line: Den -8.0
Denver had not lost a game at home since March 30, and none of the 10 they played there in this NBA Playoff series.
Miami Heat did not allow this to deter them
They rocked up and did exactly what they have done right throughout the postseason, finding a way to prevail against the odds yet again.
The Heat tied the NBA Finals at 1-1, even in the face of a herculean effort by
Nikola Jokić: 41 points
Gabe Vincent: 23 points
Jimmy Butler: 21 points
Bam Adebayo 21 points
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra - “Our guys are competitors, they love these kind of moments.”
Jamal Murray contributed 18 points and 10 assists for Denver
Aaron Gordon added 12 points
Bruce Brown had 11 points
Jamal Murray - “They just played hard, and like I said, it was more discipline. It’s defeating when you’re giving up mistake after mistake, and it’s not them beating you, you’re giving them open dunks or open shots. That’s tough to come back from.”
Max Strus, who went a shocking 0-10 in Game 1, hit four 3-pointers in the very first quarter of Game 2 alone. Some decent play followed from Miami and they led going into Q2 by the biggest margin any opponent had opened up over Denver in the whole NBA Playoff series thus far, 21-10
And then, just like that it was gone.
Denver reversed the scoring trend and went 32-11 over Miami in a hectic 9 minutes that saw them claw back a double-digit deficit and turn it into a double-digit lead. Remarkable. Denver hit 4 3-pointers in just over one minute at one point during that chaotic 9, more than Miami scored in the whole period. Not only that, but they were spreading the wealth and each 3-pointer came from a different player.
Miami trailed by as many as 15 points throughout the game and were still down by 8 heading into the 4th quarter. Nothing seemed to indicate a comeback was on the cards. Denver’s record in this Playoff series was impressive:
11-0 when leading any game by 10+ points
And it seemed unlikely to end any time soon. Add to that their record of:
37-1 when leading by 8+ heading into the 4th quarter
And it seemed like curtains in this game for Miami.
But the Heat had other ideas…
They stepped up and outscored Denver by 17-5 right out of the gate in the first 3 minutes of the 4th quarter, shooting into a lead they would never let go.
Eventually leading by 12, Miami almost threw it away, surviving a 3-point attempt at the buzzer by Jamal Murray which would have tied the game and led to overtime.
Bam Adebayo - “This is the finals. We gutted one out.”
With a similar attitude to the one he espoused after Denver’s first game:
Head coach Michael Malone - “Let’s talk about effort, I mean, this is the NBA Finals and we’re talking about effort. That’s a huge concern of mine. You guys probably thought I was just making up some storyline after Game 1 when I said we didn't play well. We didn't play well. This is not the preseason. This is not the regular season. This is the NBA Finals.”
Gabe Vincent - “When it comes down to the wire, we're strangely comfortable."
Nikola Jokić became the 14th different player in NBA history to score 41+ in an NBA Finals game and still come away with a loss.
A bizarre game, to say the least
Denver Nuggets 109-94 Miami Heat
Casey Center, Miami, FL
Line: Den -3.5
Game 3 of the 2022/’23 NBA Finals brought with it another incredible record. Never before in NBA history had two players from the same team both achieved 30-point triple-doubles in the same game. Not just in the playoff series or finals, that’s in any game in NBA history. A shattering achievement.
Nikola Jokić and teammate Jamal Murray could hardly have contributed more to the cause, both recording triple-doubles and playing huge roles in Denver’s return to winning ways.
Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone - “By far, their greatest performance as a duo in their seven years together”
Aaron Gordon - “It’s greatness, man. It’s greatness. That’s a dynamic duo right there.”
Jokić finished with:
32 points, 21 rebounds, and 10 assists
Jamal Murray had:
34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists
The last rebound he needed came with just 9 seconds remaining.
Some startling statistics:
Jokić and Murray had 24 field goals between them. Miami had 34.
The pair had 31 rebounds; Miami had 33.
To add insult to injury, they had 20 assists. Miami had 20.
The pair were effectively as productive and influential as Miami’s entire team.
A sobering thought for Heat fans
Nikola Jokić - “I’m just glad that we won the game, it was a big one for us because they won in our arena. We just didn’t want to go down 2-1.”
Jimmy Butler scored 28 points for Miami
Bam Adebayo contributed 22 points and 17 rebounds
Caleb Martin had 10 points
But it was not nearly enough in the face of such incredible dominance from the Nuggets.
Jimmy Butler - “We've got to come out with more energy and effort and that's correctable, that's on us as a group. It's not an easy task to do, but if we want to win, we're going to have to figure it out.
Miami had proven themselves the comeback kings of the playoffs to this point. They rallied and prevailed seven times in games where they found themselves with a deficit of 12+ points.
But this is a dangerous way to play and not one bound to work as a long-term strategy
Seven rallies in games after trailing by at least 12 points. Denver were all too aware of Heat’s penchant for a comeback and snuffed it out efficiently.
Michael Malone - “First two games, they won the fourth quarter, tonight, we win the fourth quarter, we win the game.”
Eventually, the gap between the teams reached 21 points and the outcome was no longer in question. The Jokić/Murray machine was simply too much for Miami to handle and they floundered.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra - “You have to expect there to be elite talent in the finals, and both those guys are elite-level talent.”
Nikola Jokić became the 7th player to have two triple-doubles in the same finals series. Up there with the likes of:
Rarefied air indeed
It was actually Jokić's 10th triple-double of this playoff series, a remarkable achievement that also extended his own personal single-season record.
Nikola Jokić - “We were more locked in, more focused”
Jokić was unstoppable from the tip-off and already had 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists by the end of the first quarter. In the last 25 years, only 2 other players have achieved that same milestone. They were:
Stephen Curry (12-7-5) in 2017
Shaquille O’Neal (12-7-3) in 2001
Christian Braun also made a real impact for Denver, coming off the bench and snagging:
15 points shooting 7-8 in just 19 minutes.
Aaron Gordon added a valuble 11 points for Denver.
Although the lead changed hands 7 times, Miami never once took it in the 2nd half. ed in the second half. A dunk by Adebayo put the Heat up 44-42 with 3:18 left in the half, before a 3-pointer by Murray represented the
53-48 at halftime
Denver came out firing and pushed the lead out to double digits early in the 3rd, at one time leading by as many as 19 points.
Reflecting on the importance of not allowing the previous game’s loss to affect the team moving forwards:
Jamal Murray - “Not just me, everybody bounced back.
Miami Heat's Adonis Haslem set an impressive record of his own in his 20th and final season in the NBA, usurping the legendary Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He is now the oldest player ever to appear in the NBA Finals, albeit playing a grand total of 29 seconds. Haslem turned 43 several days after his record-breaking appearance. No mean feat.
Denver Nuggets 108-95 Miami Heat
Casey Center, Miami, FL
Line: Den -3.0
In a case of history repeating itself, Miami have now found themselves trying to dig their way out of 3-1 holes in their last 3 finals appearances (2014, 2020, 2023). The trend of doing things the absolute hardest way possible continuing to the bitter end.
Denver Nuggets knew what they had to do to consolidate their impressive return to the lead (2-1) and prevent confidence in the comeback abilities of the, admittedly capable Miami Heat.
They did that in Florida, taking a 108-95 on-the-road victory that cannot fail to have lit a fire under even the most casual Nuggets fan.
Aaron Gordon scored 27 points
Nikola Jokić added a muted (for him) 23
It was enough to take the win and Miami now face the aforementioned hole to climb out of.
Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone was typically reticent to celebrate:
Michael Malone - “We haven’t done a damn thing yet. We have to win another game to be world champions.”
But he seemed to acknowledge the effort and desire of his team:
“Our guys are locked in, man. We’re focused.”
Impressively, Bruce Brown came off the bench for Denver and added 21 points. Not forgetting:
Jamal Murray with 15 points and 12 assists
Making 4 games in a row with double-digit assists from him
Jamal Murray - “Today was a team effort. I can’t even name one person. Everybody locked in. We’ve got one more to go.”
On the flipside and ultimately to no avail:
Jimmy Butler snatched a rock-solid scored 25 points for Miami
Bam Adebayo took 20 points and 11 rebounds
Kyle Lowry contributed 13 points
Jimmy Butler - “Now we're in a must-win situation, every single game which we're capable of. It’s not impossible.”
Miami led 21-20 at the end of the 1st quarter and those 41 points represent the lowest combined total at that juncture in the last 24 finals games. Fair to say then, it was a somewhat sluggish start to Game 4
Denver led by 13 points as the game entered the 4th quarter and Miami looked suitably desperate as they tried to stem the tide. They took the first 8 points of Q4 and then things got interesting…
Jokić fouled out with his 5th and was sent to the bench with jus under 10 minutes remaining
Soon thereafter, the gap was reduced to 86-81and Denver fans might have been forgiven for harking back to Game 2, when they fell apart in the 4th.
But even with two-time MVP winner Jokić watching from the sidelines the Nuggets were able to keep it together. They stopped the rot in the shape of a Jamal Murray 3-pointer and another extreme long shot from Jeff Green to regain their composure at 94-85.
Aaron Gordon - “We have guys that can step up, night in and night out"
Jokic tagged back into the game with the Nuggets leading by nine. Miami were not able to take better advantage of the chance his absence offered them and finished out the game 13 points behind to trail 3-1.
Miami Heat guard Duncan Robinson - “This is what this year’s been all about for this group, so definitely not going to hang our heads or quit. That’s not an option. It’s not going to happen. So we’ll band together and get on this flight tomorrow and find a way to figure it out.”
While Robinson’s confidence is admirable and surely necessary, the fact remains:
Teams taking a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals have won 35 out of 36 times
Miami Heat head coach, Erik Spoelstra - “We have an incredibly competitive group. We've done everything the hard way and that's the way it's going to have to be done right now, again. And all we're going to focus on is getting this thing back to the 305. Get this thing back to Miami. And things can shift very quickly.”
Denver Nuggets 94-89 Miami Heat
Ball Arena, Denver, CO
Line: Den -8.0
The crowd went wild. The confetti flew. Fireworks exploded. It finally happened. The Denver Nuggets became the NBA champions after almost half a century in the wilderness. Game 5 saw them overpower Miami Heat 94-89 and take the series 4-1.
The achievement may have been a remarkable one, however, the game itself was anything but
It smacked of one team being overly excited and almost unable to contain themselves. And the other being totally desperate, knowing it was do or die. The game lacked panache and was, at times, ugly and frantic. Frankly, it was a grind. The game-changing element was undoubted:
With 28 points and 16 rebounds on a night when nothing else seemed to go according to plan, Nikola Jokić put together a superb, prolific performance in the face of unrelenting pressure. He truly was the difference on the night, , hitting a double-double with 28 points and 16 rebounds and leading Denver to its first-ever NBA title in the history of the franchise.
Jokić was duly awarded, the Bill Russell Trophy as NBA Finals MVP
Nikola Jokić became the first player in history to lead the league in the postseason for:
Nikola Jokić - “We are not in it for ourselves, we are in it for the guy next to us, and that’s why this (means) even more.”
In part due to the tenacity of the Miami Heat defence and in part their own so-close-we-can-taste-it jitters, the Nuggets could not shake off their scrappy opponents and did nothing to help themselves early on, offering up:
2-20 (first 22 attempted 3-pointers)
6-7 (first 13 attempted free throws)
The Heat were trailing late onto the game when up steps Jimmy Butler with 8 straight points and suddenly they’re 1 point ahead with less than 3 minutes to play. Step up Bruce Brown for the Nuggets. He took an offensive rebound and tipped it in to regain the lead and Denver would never be behind again.
With 15 seconds remaining, Butler attempted a long-range shot which would have tied the game and possibly forced an overtime period but it was not to be. He missed and Denver took advantage of subsequent free throws to seal out the victory. An historic one in so many ways.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra - “Those last three or four minutes felt like a scene out of a movie. Two teams in the center of the ring throwing haymaker after haymaker, and it’s not necessarily shot making. It’s the efforts.”
Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke - “The fans in this town are unbelievable. It means a lot to us to get this done.”
Having survived a loss all the way back in the Play-In tournament, Miami Heat became only the second No. 8 seed ever to make the NBA finals.
They came to win and, for a while, it looked as though they just might. But they were unable to capitalise on Denver’s obvious nervousness and their shooting let them down once again:
The Nuggets came into the game with a shooting record of:
37.6% from distance
In this game, they shot 18%…
Setting the tone
Towards the end of the first quarter, Jokić committed a second foul and joined Aaron Gordon on the bench. This affected the confidence of the team and when Jeff Green and Jamal Murray joined them, the tale of the first half was written. The Nuggets were in danger of hitting panic mode and stopped pushing for the rest of the half. In fact, hitting just:
6.7% of their attempted 3-pointers
…the Nuggets gained the dubious distinction of the worst first-half shooting record in the history of the competition. It was only down to Miami’s own shooting issues that they only trailed by 7 points at the break. The Heat shot:
34% from the floor
25% from distance
However, class shone through in the end and the Denver Nuggets were able to keep it together enough to get over the line. It may not have been pretty but, slugfest or not, the result is the same at the end of the day.
Their name is finally on the trophy
Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone - “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”
Denver great, LaPhonso Ellis - “You live vicariously through these guys, 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”
So that's it. Another one bites the dust. They seem to come and go pretty fast these days!
And the cycle begins again in our neverending appreciation for the greatest sport on Earth. Be sure to check out some of our other articles, including the remarkable in-depth tale of the NBA betting scandal in the words of those involved.
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