NBA Finals : The Denver Nuggets won their first-ever title and cemented Nikola Joki’s place in basketball history in a rock-fight of a Game 5. As a result, Nikola Joki’s position as an all-time great was cemented.
Joki scored 28 points, 16 rebounds, and four assists in a 94-89 triumph in front of the 19,537 noisy spectators crammed into Ball Arena despite foul problems and a Miami Heat club that wouldn’t go away. Joki, a 7-foot Serbian, and his Denver teammates had a historic playoff run that was brought to an end when he got all of the votes for Finals MVP.
Joki joins a select group of basketball legends that only consists of Bob Pettit, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Giannis Antetokounmpo as a two-time regular-season MVP and current champion.
Joki, as modest as usual, stated on the postgame broadcast, “The job is done.” “We can now return home.”
Late in the fourth quarter, with the Heat on a five-minute scoring drought and the Nuggets leading by seven points, Jimmy Butler scored 13 straight points for his club, bringing the eighth-seeded ghouls back to life and giving them an 89-88 lead going into the last two minutes. Denver regained the lead after a Bruce Brown put-back, and with 27.4 seconds left, Butler made a mistake, giving the Nuggets a chance to put an end to Miami. The Nuggets, who were 9 for 19 at the time, converted four straight free throws to seal the victory.
When Butler made his first of two straight 3-pointers with 4:29 left, he was buried in a dreadful 2-for-13 night. A minute later, Butler attempted a 3-point shot and stomped his right foot into Aaron Gordon’s groin. However, referees affirmed a contentious foul call against the Nuggets forward, and Butler’s three free throws reduced the deficit to 86-85. Butler scored four more points to increase his lead at 89-88 after a Joki layup.
Before Brown raced through a sea of three Miami defenders to catch Jamal Murray’s missed 18-footer and score the series-winning basket with 91 seconds remaining, Miami looked set to dampen Denver’s joy.
“Those last three or four minutes felt like a scene out of a movie,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Two teams in the center of the ring throwing haymaker after haymaker, and it’s not necessarily shot-making. It’s the efforts. Guys were staggering around because both teams were playing so hard. That’s what this league should be about. There’s no regrets on our end. Sometimes you get beat, and Denver was the better team in this series. I don’t know how long it would take me to go through the autopsy of this final game, but it will probably rank as our hardest, competitive, most active defensive game of the season, and it still fell short.”
Jokić finished 12-for-16 from the floor. The rest of the Nuggets combined to shoot 26-of-68 (38.2%). Denver as a team finished 5-for-28 from 3-point range (17.9%) and 13-for-23 from the free-throw line (56.5%) and somehow still won a closeout game as ugly as it was entertaining. The Heat were no better, finishing 33-for-96 from the field (34.4%). The teams totaled 34 fouls and 22 turnovers between them.
The Heat made four turnovers in the first few minutes but failed to take advantage, going 3-for-16. In an effort to calm the nerves of a team playing in front of a ferocious home crowd, Nuggets coach Michael Malone called a timeout, and his players reacted (again). Murray (14 points) and Jeff Green sandwiched dunks — one on a drive, the other off a back-cut — around a smooth jumper from Michael Porter Jr. (16 points, 13 rebounds). An avalanche threatened Miami as Denver moved the ball as swiftly as it increased the tempo.
At the 2:51 mark of the first quarter, four minutes after Gordon’s second foul, Joki joined him on the bench after committing two of his own. That served as Bam Adebayo’s signal to attack Green as a small-ball center, scoring a series of and-1s. His 14 points in the opening frame helped Miami win 22-18.
The Heat were in their element during a tedious second quarter that was marred by 10 personal fouls that were virtually evenly distributed between both teams. After going 1-for-9 in the paint to start, they started to have success driving to the basket, first with Joki sitting on the bench and later as he aggressively tried to avoid picking up a third foul. They got eight points from Butler, four more from Adebayo, all either at the rim or free-throw line, and 15 points in the frame from the bench, including two Kyle Lowry 3-pointers and a third by Duncan Robinson, to build a lead as large as 10.
The Nuggets were prevented from falling farther behind by 34 points in the paint and Porter’s nine points and eight rebounds in the first half. Miami’s 51-44 lead at the break felt light, given Denver’s 1-for-15 shooting from deep.
So, early in the third, the Nuggets heavily dosed the Heat with Joki. He totaled eight points and five rebounds in the first five minutes of the quarter, and Murray snapped Denver’s streak of 13 straight missed 3s, connecting from the corner in transition to even the score, 60-60. Porter broke his own 3-for-26 slump in the Finals, drilling a 3 in transition and giving the Nuggets their first lead since the first quarter, 69-66.
“I didn’t think I played that good all series,” Porter said, 19 months removed from a third back surgery in five seasons. “I don’t know what was going on with my shot. I really don’t care. I’ll fix it in the offseason. I mean, it was good to be able to get a couple shots to go in this clincher. I’m not even supposed to be here, to be honest with you. After everything I’ve been through, I’m not really supposed to be a world champion.”
The Heat maintained their lead into the fourth quarter, 71-70, thanks to another Lowry three, but the Nuggets prevailed with the taste of a championship still fresh in their mouths. Murray found Jokić for a layup out of the gate, and then found the net on a second straight 3-pointer. Denver led, 75-71, and Miami needed a timeout. The Nuggets’ defense was holding the Heat in check as Butler shot 2-for-12 for the game and Adebayo had made just 1-for-5 of his shots following halftime.
Butler kicked one final time before the Heat lost. Already a mile high, the Nuggets soared into rarefied air, completing a 16-4 blitz through the playoffs. As the only champions to lose less than five playoff games since 2003, when the NBA transitioned to a best-of-seven format in the first round, they joined the 2017 Golden State Warriors (16-1) and the 2007 San Antonio Spurs (16-4) in that distinction. Denver’s celebration has hardly just begun.
Heat president Pat Riley “said something many years ago,” Malone added. “I used to have it up on my board when I was a head coach in Sacramento, and it talked about the evolution in this game and how you go from a nobody to an upstart, and you go from an upstart to a winner and a winner to a contender and a contender to a champion, and the last step is after a champion is to be a dynasty. So we’re not satisfied.”