NBA Finals: Nuggets revel in championship, from Nikola Jokić's Champagne spray flub to dynasty talk


Thomas Bryant’s screams echoed as he walked through the home locker room at Ball Arena, celebratory bottle in hand. Bryant played all of 205 minutes for the Nuggets during the regular season after coming to Denver from the Lakers at the trade deadline, and logged just 29 seconds of postseason playing time in 20 playoff games. No matter: He’s part of this, the first NBA championship in Nuggets franchise history, all the same.

Which meant that after the final buzzer sounded — after the on-court trophy presentation, and the crowning of Nikola Jokić as the unanimous Finals MVP, and the jubilant walk back to that home locker room — it was time to celebrate the fact that, yes, we f***ing won.

While Bryant bounced around handing out dap, his teammates, coaches and a slew of Nuggets staffers started the party. Confetti fell. Corks popped. Beers cracked. Goggles on.

Guard Bruce Brown — one of many perfect-fit role players the Nuggets brought in to fill in the gaps around Jokić, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., who made big play after big play throughout these 2023 NBA Finals — wanted to know where the cigars were and who had the lighter. Both were soon located, and plumes of smoke began to curl up toward the lights in the ceiling of the locker room.

About that ceiling: From time to time for the remainder of the evening, droplets of Champagne would drip-drip-drip down from it onto the heads of the assembled revelers and reporters. What goes up must come down, after all. The vibe around this Nuggets team, though, promised to stay lifted for a good long while … even through head coach Michael Malone cutting the music.

Party foul? Perhaps. But Malone — the fourth-longest-tenured head coach in the NBA and a first-time champion — had something important to say.

“We won as a family,” Malone told his players and staff. “And we stayed together as a family.”

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray celebrates on stage after the Nuggets won their first NBA championship on June 12, 2023 at Ball Arena in Denver. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray celebrates on stage after the Nuggets won their first NBA championship Monday at Ball Arena in Denver. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

They’d celebrate as a family, too. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope didn’t get that chance the first time he won the NBA championship, as a member of the Lakers team that eliminated the Nuggets in 2020 before knocking off Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and the Heat in the Finals.

“I didn’t have the crowd or my family in the bubble,” Caldwell-Pope said at the podium. “So it was just my brothers on the team.”

On Monday, though, he got to share the moment with a raucous sold-out crowd of nearly 20,000 at Ball Arena; got to celebrate in the moment with his family; got to bring his kids out onto the court with him. How’d that compare?

“This is better,” he said, beaming.

Caldwell-Pope wasn’t the only one looking beatific in the locker room. Ish Smithveteran of 13 NBA teams — flashed a Cheshire Cat grin everywhere he walked, whether he was holding a magnum of Champagne or the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, giddily asking where the party was headed to next, where the night he’d spent 13 years dreaming of might finally take him.

Everybody got their chance to get up close and personal with the big gold ball. Smith, DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green — a combined 43 seasons of NBA experience between them, all so widely praised by Jokić, Murray, Malone and the rest of the Nuggets’ locker room for their veteran leadership and ability to maintain both a requisite lock-in and a light mood — embraced one another and the Larry O’B. Reggie Jackson, who pondered retirement before giving it another go and winding up netting the ultimate reward, eagerly snapped a photo of young big man Zeke Nnaji cradling the trophy.

Nuggets staffers crowded around, cheesing and crowing. One of them yelled, “Denver dynasty starts now!” Maybe more than one, in fact.

Malone, it seems, likes the sound of that. A hand on the Champagne that he brought to his postgame news conference — “No Gatorade tonight,” he declared, before signing off as he left the podium with a hearty “cheers” — the son of a coach started the process of looking ahead by first calling back to the past.

“You know, Pat Riley said something many years ago,” Malone said. “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. 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 after a champion is to be a dynasty.

“So we’re not satisfied. We accomplished something this franchise has never done before, but we have a lot of young talented players in that locker room, and I think we just showed through 16 playoff wins what we’re capable of on the biggest stage in the world.”

As Malone started considering the future, the rest of the Nuggets continued living in the moment. Pumping “March Madness,” dancing to “Big Poppa,” an exhale nine months in the making and the exhilaration of their lives. More bottles, more golden chalices filled up. More stogies, more beers — including the one that former Nuggets director of player personnel Jared Jeffries shotgunned.

Someone screamed for a bottle opener. It didn’t sound like Jokić, though it could’ve been someone trying to help him out with the whole “spraying everyone down” thing.

The struggle with the bottle represented perhaps the most significant struggle that Jokić had dealt with in weeks. Back at the postgame podium, though, he spoke about how the struggles that he and the Nuggets had experienced before this run — losing a Game 7 on this very court to the Portland Trail Blazers in 2019, falling to the Lakers in the bubble, the last two injury-plagued postseasons, the opportunities lost — set them up to finally reach the brass ring now.

“If you want to be a success, you need a couple years,” he 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.”

That’s remarkably philosophical for a guy who’d just been walking around taking giant bottles of Moët and Michelob Ultra straight to the dome and who presents a particularly large target for teammates and staffers looking for someone to douse in Champagne.

“Yes, I think [Nuggets equipment manager] Sparky [Gonzales] got me,” Jokić said. “But it’s a great emotions. Everything is in a good, positive way.”

The trick now, of course, is keeping it that way.

“I told myself, if and when we win, I’m going to do exactly what we and I did to get to this point,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon, the missing piece of the puzzle, said. “I’m going to celebrate, but I’m going to continue to work smarter, harder and more efficient.”

“That’s a professional answer right there,” Brown said, flanking him at the podium.

“That was tough with a lot of Champagne,” Gordon replied.

For the Nuggets, it’s about to get even tougher. (Irrespective of how much Champagne got added over the course of the evening.) As hard as it is to get to the top of the mountain, staying there is even harder. Once you’ve reached the pinnacle, what comes next?

“Well, we’re going to enjoy tonight, of course,” Gordon said. “This is a night to be celebrated ...”

“A few weeks,” Brown interrupted. “Not just tonight. We’re going to enjoy this for a few weeks.”

While the players set out for a few fortnights of fun, though, the NBA world continues to spin. And that means, for Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth — who demurred when a couple of staffers screamed that he was the rightful Executive of the Year — Tuesday is still Tuesday.

“I’ll take a breath, and then we have a draft workout in the afternoon,” Booth told Yahoo Sports.

Come on, Calvin. You can push that one a little bit, right?

“No, no, no,” he said, with a smile. “Got a draft workout tomorrow afternoon. Got to keep on rolling.”

He’s got a pretty good start on doing it. With the exception of Brown — an unrestricted free agent this summer whom Gordon said “is fitting to get a bag” on the open market — the rest of the Nuggets’ core is locked up for the next two seasons. Jokić and Gordon are 28. Murray is 26. Porter is 25. Rookie Christian Braun proved in the postseason that he’s ready for a larger role; if the Nuggets’ ongoing raving about fellow rookie Peyton Watson is any indication, he might be ready for one, too. This has the feeling of a start of something; it’s possible that, after 47 years without a title, Denver’s reign at the top might just be beginning.

“I hope so,” Caldwell-Pope said in the locker room. “Let’s see. Let’s see if we can run it back.”

And with that, and a boisterous, “All right, I’m out,” KCP stepped away from the cameras and phones, shuffling through all the confetti, corks and chalices, ready to find someone else to celebrate with — someone else with whom to share the electric feeling of having f***ing won.