LOS ANGELES — The Denver Nuggets beat the Los Angeles Lakers 113-111 in the Western Conference Finals Monday to complete a four-game sweep and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
The Nuggets trampled the Lakers’ final gasp as they kept the season going for weeks after what seemed to be the end of the season. “I think we gave it our all,” said Lakers manager Durbin Hamm.
Now Denver awaits the winner of the Eastern Conference Finals. In the Finals, the Miami Heat lead the series 3-0 over the Boston Celtics. Game 4 of the East will be played in Miami on Tuesday.
For the Nuggets, Monday’s win marked the culmination of a year-long process in which key players have grown together, weathered difficult injuries and faced questions about their ability to compete even in the West. The team’s best player, center Nikola Jokic, won the league’s Most Valuable Player award twice, but reached the conference finals only once.
Jokic was named MVP of the Western Conference Finals.
Denver lost star guard Jamal Murray to a torn ACL in his left knee in April 2021. Nuggets coach Michael Malone said the day after his injury, Murray called himself a “broken item” and tearfully asked if the Nuggets would trade him.
“I hugged him,” Malone said. “I said, ‘Oh no, you belong to us. I will be a player.”
Murray missed the rest of that season and all of the 2021-22 season. Denver’s perseverance paid off in the playoffs this year.
Murray started looking like the player he was before his injury, and Jokic continued to play at the elite level, perfectly complemented by Denver’s talented cast of role players.
The Nuggets climbed to No. 1 in the West in December and have never fallen from 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, the oddsmakers weren’t in favor of them winning the championship. The Nuggets accepted it.
“We’re underdogs,” guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “What we do is underappreciated,” he continued. “We think of it as personal because it’s not talked about much. We just have to use that energy to keep proving everyone wrong.”
Even after the first two rounds, some thought the Lakers were dangerous enough to finally be the team to overthrow the Nuggets.
That confidence with the Lakers only grew during the playoffs.
For a while, the Lakers seemed hopeless with roster problems and injuries to star players LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
They started the season with a record of 2-10. The Lakers finished 13th in December, while the Nuggets were consolidating their lead in the West.
Guard Russell Westbrook, who struggled with the Lakers last season, was still not fit and was left out of the starting lineup in three games. Davis injured his foot against the Nuggets on December 16 and missed 20 games while recovering. Shortly after Davis’ return, James missed several games with a foot injury that saw some doctors say he needed surgery.
However, the change at the February trading deadline helped. The Lakers traded Westbrook for role players Jared Vanderbilt, D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley. They also traded for Rui Hachimura in January.
They had moved up to No. 7 in the West by the end of the regular season and secured the No. 7 seed in the playoffs by defeating Minnesota after overtime in the play-in tournament. In the first round, they quieted a rowdy Memphis team that had spent most of the season in the top three of the West, winning 4-2. After that, they defeated the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors, 4-2, and dominated the deciding match in the second round.
But the Nuggets turned out to be a different type of opponent. They were more cohesive, less dramatic, and stronger in the center than Memphis or Golden State.
In the Lakers’ first two series, Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks called 38-year-old James an old man, accused the Warriors of failing to make favorable calls, and opponents verbally attacked the Lakers. The Nuggets took a different approach, showing respect off the court to the end.
“I wouldn’t say I’m scared, but I’m worried,” Jokic said after Denver’s Game 3 win. “Because they have LeBron and he can do anything.”
In this series, James seemed more prone to mistakes than before. He made 0-of-10 3-pointers in his first two games, made a disastrous late-game mistake in Game 1, and was ridiculed for missing a dunk in Game 2. So far, he’s led a team through Davis’ postseason volatility, but that won’t be the case for the Nuggets. Don’t let him do the same thing twice.