NBA Finals: Denver Nuggets are champions for the first time in franchise history
This story was originally published by Colorado Public Radio at 9:01 PM on June 13, 2023.
It didn’t come easy — then again, nothing you’ve waited half a century for ever comes easy — but the Denver Nuggets are now NBA champions after beating the Miami Heat 94 to 89 Monday night to close out the NBA Finals after winning four games to Miami’s one.
It was fitting. Game 5 in Ball Arena — at altitude, amongst a raucous crowd — was the climactic slug fest this story deserved.
The match started with a scoring frenzy by the Nuggets and “an early avalanche here in Denver” — as announcer Mike Breen so poetically put it, as if calling upon the Colorado team, the NHL’s Avalanche, that won a title in the same building just a year ago.
But what at first felt like would be a comfortable Game 5 celebration win quickly became a boxing match. The Miami Heat went on an 18-point swing that put Denver down by as many as 10. And from there, the Nuggets had to climb out of the hole to meet destiny.
The 3s weren’t dropping. The free throws weren’t landing. But the defensive tenacity, the audacious rebounding and a kinetic desperation to bring the title home kept the Nuggets in the game. After an early 1st Quarter lead, the Nuggets would play from behind until finally taking it back late in the third.
And then came the 4th quarter. The energy was “helter skelter,” as Breen put it.
Star Nikola Jokic guided Denver through the chaos and a late flurry from Miami's Jimmy Butler to squeeze past the Heat for a frantic victory.
Jokic had 28 points and 16 rebounds for the Nuggets, who missed 20 of their first 22 3-point attempts and seven of their first 13 free throws but figured out how to close out the series on their home floor.
Butler scored eight straight points to help the Heat take an 87-86 lead with 2:45 left after trailing by seven. He made two more free throws with 1:58 remaining to help Miami regain a one-point lead. Then, Bruce Brown got an offensive rebound and tip-in to give the Nuggets the lead for good.
Trailing by three with 15 seconds left, Butler shot a 3 pointer, but missed it. Brown then made two free throws to put the game out of reach and bring the title to Denver for the first time in the franchise's 47 years in the league.
Butler finished with 21 points for the Heat.
This was an ugly, frenetic affair, but the aftermath was something the Nuggets and their fans could all agree was beautiful. Denver is the home of the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time.
“It was and ugly and we couldn’t make shots, but at the end we figured it out,” Jokic said. "I am just happy we won the game.”
The Heat were, as coach Erik Spoelstra promised, a gritty, tenacious bunch. But their shooting wasn’t great, either. Bam Adebayo had 20 for the Heat, but Miami shot 34 percent from the floor and 25 percent from 3. Until Butler went off, he was 2 for 13 for eight points.
The Heat, who survived a loss in the play-in tournament and became only the second No. 8 seed to make it to the finals, insisted they weren’t into consolation prizes.
They played like they expected to win, and for a while during this game, which was settled more on the ground than in the air, it looked like they would.
The Nuggets, who came in shooting 37.6 percent from 3 for the series, shot 18 percent in this one. They committed 14 turnovers. They only went 13 for 23 from the line, though Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were 4 for 4 at the end while Denver was salting away the win.
With 2:51 left in the first quarter, Jokic got his second foul and joined Aaron Gordon on the bench.
The Nuggets were tentative on both sides of the court for the rest of the half. Somehow, after shooting 6.7 percent from 3 — the worst first half in the history of the finals (10-shot minimum) they only trailed by seven.
Downtown Denver is full of fireworks and crowded streets
The official Denver Nuggets Champions Celebration will be held Thursday, June 15, according to the City of Denver, which announced the parade shortly after Monday night's victory.
The Denver Nuggets Champions Parade will begin at 10 a.m. at Union Station, 17th and Wynkoop Streets), proceed down 17th Street to Broadway, and then travel south on Broadway to Civic Center Park.
But for people who can't wait until Thursday, the streets of Denver are already full of celebration with thousands of fans flooding the downtown.
“It’s insane man, I’ve been watching since Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson," Chase Cook of Denver said. "It’s a great feeling man. Seeing this all come together, I couldn’t ask for a better night.”
"When I first started watching basketball, I was like 10 years old. My Grandpa was always a fan so I was watching it with him since I was a little boy," said Chino Taha, a 5th generation Denverite. "It's crazy to be out here. This is like when the Avs won but times 10. It's the most people I've seen out here in a minute. Denver is a championship city."
CPR Editor Alejandro Alonso Galva contributed to this report.
AP National Writer Eddie Pells contributed to this report.
Denverite Reporter Isaac Vargas contributed to this report.