After multiple past heartbreaks in the NBA Playoffs, the Denver Nuggets can now call themselves NBA champions after winning the title for the first time in their 47-year history after winning Game 5 of the 2023 NBA Finals.
It wasn’t an easy game, by any means, as the Miami Heat, who have battled injuries throughout the playoffs, battle all the way until the end. In terms of overcoming adversity, Game 5 was a great example of the mental toughness that the champions had.
Jimmy Butler, who had been 2 of 12 from the field at one point in the game, came to life late in the fourth quarter to score 13-straight points for the Miami Heat to help them take an 89-88 lead. With the game in the balance, the Nuggets found a way to get crucial stops down the stretch in a physical game where the refs allowed a lot of contact on both sides of the floor.
Clinging to a one-point lead, the Nuggets forced Butler into a turnover with 30 seconds left on the clock, and after starting the night horribly from the free throw line as a team, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown sank the biggest four free throws of their careers to ice the game for a 94-89 victory.
With the season now officially over, here are my key takeaways from this NBA Finals series.
Nikola Jokic is one of the best team players the NBA has ever seen
Nikola Jokic deservedly received the Finals MVP after averaging 30.2 points, 14 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.4 blocks. He was also the first player to ever lead the playoffs in total points, rebounds and assists. Not bad for a guy who got drafted while a Taco Bell ad was running on TV.
He was excellent in every game, including their solitary loss in Game 2, where Jokic had 41 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in a game that ended with a 111-108 scoreline. He is truly a three-way threat on offense that can score from anywhere, but prefers to keep his teammates involved. For all of his offensive abilities, Jokic truly shines as the main playmaker in a Nuggets squad that is stacked with offensive weapons.
The man from Sombor’s consistency was what allowed different teammates to shine in their four victories in the Finals. In Game 1, his 27 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists allowed Jamal Murray the freedom to have his own 26-point, 10 assists performance.
In Game 3, Jokic and Murray combined for 66 points, 31 rebounds and 20 assists while both getting a triple-double. Their combined impact also allowed rookie Christian Braun to have the space to score 15 points on eight shots in a classic display of hustle.
In Game 4, Jokic showed his defensive chops, finishing with 23 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocks, while helping Aaron Gordon to a career playoff-best 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
In the title-clinching game, Jokic had 28 points, 16 rebounds and four assists while making 12 of 16 field goal attempts. In the second half, he used his size advantage to get multiple big buckets in the paint. His ability to score at will in those spots helped inspire his teammates, who clamped down on defense. No one else finished with 20 or more points on the team in Game 5, but Jamal Murray had 14 points, eight rebound and eight assists, while Michael Porter Jr., who had been quiet throughout the series, had an important 16 points, 13 rebounds and three assists.
Jokic is one of the rare players that doesn’t just understand the importance of keeping teammates involved and engaged. He also has the court vision, passing skill, and knowledge of how the game flows to maximize his teammates’ talents. In Game 5, with everything still in the balance, Jokic was even seen viciously yelling on the bench in a rare show of emotion for someone who has built a reputation as a stoic person on and off the court (minus the Markieff Morris incident, of course.)
Don’t let the quiet act fool you, though. Jokic is a vicious competitor who has now proven to the world that he has the will to win and to battle through ugly games. His teammates follow his example and will continue to do so until he finally retires to go back to his horses in Serbia.
What Jokic has shown the rest of the world as well, though, is how strong fundamental basketball skills combined with intelligence will always help win titles. He could choose to shoot more, but his love for passing the basketball will hopefully inspire many future NBA big men, especially the new generation coming in like Victor Wembanyama.
Jamal Murray’s bubble success was no fluke
Jamal Murray built his early reputation off a run in the bubble that saw him have one of the most memorable duels in playoff history against Donovan Mitchell. He averaged 24.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.3 assists in the bubble, but then saw his next two seasons cut short due to a devastating ACL injury. Coach Michael Malone shared that Murray was afraid that he was going to get cut or traded after the injury, but the Nuggets instead kept faith in him and he rewarded them by being the second-best player on a title-winning team.
Murray’s scoring was helpful in the series, but a ton of credit also has to be given to his playmaking. The Canadian point guard averaged 21.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 10 assists and a steal in the Finals. Yes, that’s right, he averaged more assists than Jokic, and his only single-digit assist effort was when he dropped eight of them in Game 5.
Jokic’s infectious unselfishness has taught Murray the importance of keeping the ball moving as well, which isn’t always easy for a player with supreme scoring ability. Yet, he put his ego aside and did the dirty things for the team when his shot wasn’t falling, and used the threat of his long range shooting and quick slashing ability to get the ball to wide open teammates time and again.
The two-man threat that Jokic and Murray pose is the culmination of seven years of being teammates and getting to truly understand the ins and outs of each other’s game. It’s been a pleasure to watch Murray recover from his knee injury, as well as seeing it be rewarded with a ring.
Keeping coaches around is a good thing
Michael Malone has been with the Nuggets for eight years. There have been significant ups and downs during his time with the team, but the Nuggets front office and ownership have shown faith in him and kept him around. Not a lot of teams keep their coaches around for very long anymore, which is indicative of how reactionary the NBA has become these days.
Malone is an excellent motivator who understands the importance of giving credit where it’s due, whether it’s to his players or his opponents. He’s now helped make history in Denver and silenced many of those who have called for his head to roll over the years after playoff disappointments.
On the other side of the court was Erik Spoelstra, who has been head coach of the Heat for 15 years and is fourth in the list trailing the legendary Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics. The Filipino-American coach took an underdog team to the Finals for the second time in the last four years, and it’s hard to blame him for the result. The Heat gave it their all, but there’s not doubt that there was a significant talent gap between their role players and the Nuggets’. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo had their moments, but there wasn’t enough consistency from the other players in the rotation. Spoelstra is a class act and deserves a ton of credit for helping the Heat get to where they were this season.