In a rock fight of a Game 5, the Denver Nuggets reached the NBA mountaintop from the foothills of the Rockies, winning their first championship and setting Nikola Jokić's legacy as an all-timer in stone.
Battling foul trouble and a Miami Heat team that refused to die, Jokić amassed 28 points, 16 rebounds and four assists in a 94-89 victory in front of 19,537 raucous fans filling Ball Arena. Jokić received all votes in the Finals MVP voting, concluding a historic playoff run for the 7-foot Serbian and his Denver teammates.
As a two-time regular-season MVP and now champion, Jokić joins a heady list of basketball greats that includes only 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.
"The job is done," Jokić said on the postgame broadcast, humble as ever. "We can go home now."
The Nuggets led by seven late in the fourth quarter, and the Heat were on a five-minute scoring drought, when Jimmy Butler scored 13 straight points for his team, raising the eighth-seeded zombies from the grave and taking an 89-88 lead into the final two minutes. A Bruce Brown put-back returned the lead to Denver, and Butler's turnover with 27.4 seconds left gifted the Nuggets a chance to finally lay Miami to rest. The Nuggets, 9-for-19 from the line at the time, made four straight free throws down the stretch to clinch.
Butler could appreciate none of his heroics. "That I turned the ball over," he said. "That's what stood out."
Butler was mired in a miserable 2-for-13 night when he hit the first of consecutive 3-pointers with 4:29 remaining. Butler kicked his right foot into Aaron Gordon's groin on a 3-point attempt a minute later, but officials confirmed a controversial foul call against the Nuggets forward, and Butler's three free throws trimmed the margin to 86-85. Butler wrapped four more points around a Jokić layup for the 89-88 edge.
Miami appeared poised to spoil Denver's celebration until Brown swam through a sea of three Miami defenders to snare Jamal Murray's errant 18-footer and put home the series winner with 91 seconds left.
"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 forced four turnovers in the opening minutes but could not capitalize, starting 3-for-16. Nuggets coach Michael Malone called a timeout, trying to settle the nerves of a team playing before its bloodthirsty home crowd, and his players responded (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). Denver moved the ball as quickly as it pushed the pace, and an avalanche threatened Miami.
Then, four minutes after Gordon committed his second foul, Jokić joined him on the bench with two of his own at the 2:51 mark of the first quarter. Bam Adebayo took that at his cue to attack Green as a small-ball center, finishing consecutive and-1s. His 14 first-quarter points flipped the game in Miami's favor, 22-18.
In a slog of a second quarter muddied by 10 personal fouls almost evenly split between both teams, the Heat were in their element. After starting 1-for-9 in the paint, they found success attacking the basket, first with Jokić on the bench, and then as he actively avoided committing 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.
Porter's nine points and eight rebounds in the first half kept the Nuggets from a worse deficit, as did 34 points in the paint. Miami's 51-44 lead at the break felt light, given Denver's 1-for-15 shooting from deep.
So, the Nuggets gave the Heat a heavy dose of Jokić early in the third. 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."
Another Lowry triple helped the Heat carry a 71-70 edge into the final frame, but the Nuggets emerged with the taste of a title on their tired tongues. 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. Butler was 2-for-12 in the game, Adebayo 1-for-5 since halftime, and the Nuggets' defense was strangling the Heat on a string.
Butler made one final kick before his Heat finally succumbed. Already a mile high, the Nuggets soared into rarefied air, completing a 16-4 blitz through the playoffs. They joined the 2017 Golden State Warriors (16-1) and 2007 San Antonio Spurs (16-4) as the only champions to lose fewer than five playoff games since 2003, when the NBA switched to a best-of-seven format in the first round. And Denver's party has just begun.
"We're not satisfied with one," Malone told the Nuggets faithful. "We want more."
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."