Nikola Jokic has been as good as anybody in basketball over the past three seasons, and the Denver Nuggets’ big man will now get the NBA Finals stage to show it.
Jokic and his team-mates overcame LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers as the visiting Nuggets advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history with a 113-111 victory on Monday and a four-game sweep in the Western Conference finals.
The two-time MVP scored 30 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and dished out 13 assists for his fifth triple-double in his past six games. He set a record for total triple-doubles in a single playoff run with eight, breaking a tie with Wilt Chamberlain, who had seven for the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967.
Jamal Murray scored 25 points and Aaron Gordon added 22 for the Nuggets, who trailed by 15 points at half-time and weathered a 31-point first half from James.
“We don’t give up,” Jokic said. “I’ve been saying this the last five years, when we were bad, we were good, we don’t give up. That’s what happened today. They jumped on us in the first half, they were aggressive, they were scoring easy. But in the second half, we turned the page and everybody was stepping up.”
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Denver swept the series after losing once in the first round to the Minnesota Timberwolves and twice in the second round to the Phoenix Suns.
The Western Conference’s top seed will now await the winner of the Eastern Conference finals, in which the Miami Heat have a 3-0 lead over the Boston Celtics. There has never been a pair of conference-finals sweeps in NBA history.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals is scheduled for June 1 in Denver or Boston. James finished with 40 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, cooling off from a 21-point first quarter when he was 7 of 9 from the field and 4 of 4 from three-point range. He played all but 4.3 seconds in the game while setting a playoff career high for points during any half.
James’ last-second shot attempt inside the paint to tie the game was tied up by Murray and blocked by Gordon.
“I thought [James] came out with a mindset to keep this [series] going,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “He came into the building as he’s been all year, all throughout the playoffs, with a focus and a determination to get it done by any means necessary.
“I just thanked them all. The competitive spirit was phenomenal from Day 1.” Davis scored 21 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for Los Angeles, while Austin Reaves had 17 points, Dennis Schroder added 13 and Rui Hachimura contributed 10.
The Nuggets opened the second half with a 9-2 run to pull within 75-67. They got to within 79-78 with 6:27 remaining in the third quarter on a jumper from Murray and pulled in front 83-81 on a three-point play by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with 4:39 remaining in the third.
Denver led 94-89 entering the final period, with Jokic already having recorded his triple-double.
“For me, [Jokic] hasn’t proven anything [new] because I already know he’s a great player,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But I think he’s shown other people nationally that he’s real, what he’s doing is real, the MVPs are real, the triple-doubles are real. All the silly narratives this year are just that, silly and ignorant.
“I think Nikola has gone through three rounds where he’s averaging a triple-double. Have you seen any stat padding out there? I’m serious. Enough with the silliness. The guy is a great player. Give him his damn respect.”
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The Lakers tied the game 102-102 on a putback dunk by Davis with 5:02 remaining. However, Murray was fouled on a three-point attempt and made all three foul shots, the Lakers had consecutive misses from three-point range and Gordon’s dunk put Denver up 107-102 with 3:34 left.
Los Angeles came back again to tie the game 111-111 on a pair of Davis free throws with 1:13 remaining before Jokic put the Nuggets back on top 113-111 on a lay-up with 51.7 seconds remaining. Neither team scored again.
“To get the first Western Conference championship in franchise history, it means a lot,” Malone said. “But I speak for 17 players in that locker room, and the entire organisation: We are not satisfied. We can enjoy it for a moment. I think it’s gonna be a hell of a plane ride home, but we have a lot of work to do.”