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NBA Finals: A title run for the ages vindicates so much for these Nuggets ... finally

DENVER — Before the smell of cheap champagne and cigars filled the air, before the fireworks blazed outside Ball Arena, Nikola Jokić was being lifted off his 285-pound frame by his older brothers.

Little did he know validation was raining down on him, the most aware on-court player in the NBA oblivious to what was around him.

It wasn’t justice, like Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 2021 ring. Nor was it vindication, as was the case for Stephen Curry last June.

Jokić and the Nuggets needed to win this championship, this way, finishing off the stubborn Miami Heat in Game 5 with a tough and ugly win Monday night.

It was an up-and-down relationship Denver has had with its basketball team, always respectable but never chosen. Always worthy of the love but never feeling it.

The Nuggets are the last of the ABA teams to reach the Finals — the league that felt built more off love and pure style, but wasn’t always reciprocated. Forty-seven years, it took, for this moment. The longest in the history of the 76-year NBA.

The game, it’s said, will break your heart. The game, at its core, is a relationship between men as boys and a round ball.

That relationship brought Nuggets guard Jamal Murray to tears — not just the ones on the podium as he displayed rare emotion aside from the fire that fuels his play — but the ones in that hospital bed, after surgery when he tore his knee. It’s easy to hear an organization say they’ll stay with you through recovery, through rehab that isn’t fun, but the NBA moves faster than ever.

And it would’ve been easy for Murray to hear those words during that vulnerable period, to dismiss reassurance and let doubt creep in.

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray smokes a cigar inside the locker room while holding the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy after the Nuggets won the NBA championship on June 12, 2023, at Ball Arena in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray smokes a cigar inside the locker room while holding the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy after the Nuggets won the NBA championship on June 12, 2023, at Ball Arena in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

To believe, for all that the game hath brought, that the game doesn’t love you back. It doesn’t actually love anyone, it just rents affection. And for once, it smiled on the Nuggets. It smiled on the Canadian guard who was tossed into a swimming pool by his partner-in-crime, the guard who needed to be the perfect complement to the otherworldly center.

How hard is it to focus on being the best teammate you can be, when you can’t be the best “you,” when you’re not sure you can be yourself, let alone a better version?

“People say ball is life. I feel like I really embraced it,” Murray told Yahoo Sports. “There’s no other job, career. I never dreamed of anything else. I put my whole body and soul into this. Just to see this come full circle, it’s an amazing thing.”

Murray was calm, even after all the inebriation and being pulled in unexpected directions following an exhilarating and emotionally draining night, and season. He had to be things Jokić was, and wasn’t — all the while feeling like he wasn’t fully himself, never a moment where he felt he was fully back to his old self. Or worse for the NBA, a better version. That Bubble Murray kid is long gone. What’s emerged from the darkness of doubt and indecision is someone new, with scar tissue and experience but energy and plenty of air space to do more.

“I don’t think I am, I’ve just been rehabbing. I’ve been working on my shot,” Murray said. “I know there’s more to come for me.”

That scar tissue is so familiar to Jeff Green — physically and emotionally. He’s closer to his 20-year high school reunion than his retirement, outlasting younger and luckier players, in a sense. Laying in that hospital bed after a five-hour heart procedure following an aortic aneurysm. He wasn’t as worried about basketball loving him back as he was life loving him, giving him a chance to be what he’s always been — and even in those moments, he envisioned the gold ball.

“Hell yeah, that’s why I put in those hours. Blood, sweat and tears. To be in this position. To be here,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “All that work paid off. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It made me who I am.”

Then the celebratory moment turns for a split second, and he locks eyes.

“Yes. It was everything.”

Jeff Green holds the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) celebrates after the Nuggets won the NBA championship at Ball Arena in Denver on June 12, 2023. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

All these players, these disparate stories of men who believed at some point, through fate or circumstance or otherwise, things wouldn’t work out for them in a team setting, found themselves in the most unlikely position at the most unlikely time.

“If you want to be a success, you need a couple years,” Jokić said. “You need to be bad, then you need to be good. Then when you’re good, you need to fail, and then when you fail, you’re going to figure it out.

“I think experience is something that is not what happened to you. It’s what you’re going to do with what happened to you.”

Jokić added the last thing missing from his NBA résumé, the finishing touches on a Bill Russell Finals MVP performance. Just because he’s a man of few words doesn’t mean he’s one of few thoughts or desires or ambitions, he can just keep them to himself, go out and show his worth and leave the rest to those best suited to interpret those actions.

He’ll never let on if the discussions bothered him, that he would be in dubious company of being a multiple-time MVP without a title, let alone a Finals appearance. But he knocked out both in a nearly two-week showing, in a performance that will be ranked among the greatest individual runs in league history.

Where he fits among the greatest centers ever will be topic for debate but consider this: There’s no current answer for him. His stats are impressive, but it’s even more amazing seeing him in person, adjusting to the adjustments.

He didn’t average a triple-double in the playoffs, but it wasn’t needed. His effect on the game goes beyond that, and is such a fulcrum the Nuggets won’t have any issues mixing and matching around him in the future.

Bam Adebayo did the best he could, as did Anthony Davis. But he’s inevitable, and his 28 points, 16 rebounds and four assists count as proof as his performances serve more as a threat for what’s to come than lightning in a bottle.

“You go from a nobody to an upstart,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “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.”

Malone knows what he has, knows the support the Nuggets have provided through the years when they came up short through the injuries or their own shortcomings. He repeatedly reinforced Michael Porter Jr., even after the victory, telling the young forward how much he means to him, how much he values Porter’s sacrifices, competitive stubbornness and individual potential.

Porter has more room to run, as does the rest of the roster. He’s 24. Murray’s 26 and Jokić is 28.

Young enough to have heartbreak, experienced enough to know love don’t love anyone, but accomplished enough to know love could be around the corner.

They’re a team that resonates from the past, while also being a team that represents the future.

Teams of decades ago struggled with losing, struggled with each other and faced questions right as they were climbing the highest level of their journey — imagine breaking this team up because of injuries and not really seeing this group in full bloom, yet still adding critical supporting pieces.

There was not just the hope but the absolute expectation Jokić and Murray would lead and be healthy, and not be fazed by what looked like a treacherous Western Conference.

The Nuggets made it look like lunch meat.

With the incoming collective bargaining agreement, drafting will become more prevalent as it seems fewer avenues of free agency will be available to obtain franchise-changing talent.

It’s not sure exactly how the new changes will shape the NBA, but you’d best believe the Nuggets have a leg up on matters.

They’re built to sustain, and the NBA has already started chasing them. Next season comes quicker than one thinks, and even though the Nuggets have the gold ball, they know better than anyone, love doesn’t always last.

But sometimes, it sticks around for a while.