LOS ANGELES—Nikola Jokic is a player unlike almost anything the National Basketball Association (NBA) has ever seen, and now he’s taking his Denver Nuggets somewhere they’ve never been.
Jokic had 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists, and the Nuggets advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in team history Monday night, sweeping the Western Conference finals with a 113-111 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Jamal Murray scored 25 points for the top-seeded Nuggets, who overcame LeBron James’ 31-point first half and a 15-point halftime deficit with a tenacious finish in Game 4 to earn their first conference title in their 47 NBA seasons.
“It’s incredible,” Murray said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s surreal. We’re going to keep making history, that’s the thing. We’re going to keep that mindset.”
Jokic earned his eighth triple-double of the playoffs by the third quarter, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s 1967 NBA record for triple-doubles in a single postseason. The bulky Serbian center with a point guard’s grace also led the Nuggets’ gritty defensive effort despite picking up his fifth foul midway through the fourth quarter.
Jokic didn’t leave the floor for the final 33 minutes of Game 4 — and when Denver needed a big basket, Jokic delivered that as well. He muscled past Anthony Davis for the game’s final points on a layup with 51 seconds to play.
“I think that’s why playoffs are so nice and so interesting, because you don’t care about how tired you are,” Jokic said. “You don’t care about minutes, fouls, shots, percentage. You just want to win a game. Some plays today we weren’t playing good defense sometimes, (but) you can win it in every kind of possible way.”
James finished with 40 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists after the highest-scoring postseason half of his career, but even the top scorer in NBA history couldn’t keep the deep, dynamic Nuggets from their sixth consecutive victory overall.
James missed two tying shots in the final seconds, with Aaron Gordon getting official credit for blocking his tying try at the buzzer.
The Nuggets will cap their superb season by playing for their first NBA championship. Denver both eliminated the Lakers for the first time in eight playoff meetings and swept a playoff series for the first time, likely earning several days off before the finals.
Unless the Boston Celtics make basketball history by rallying from their 3-0 deficit in the East finals, Denver will host the eighth-seeded Miami Heat to open the NBA Finals, beginning June 1.
“Me and AD were just talking in the locker room (and) we came to the consensus this is one of the best teams, if not the best team, we’ve played together for all four years,” James said of the Nuggets. “Just well-orchestrated, well put together. They have scoring. They have shooting. They have playmaking. They have smarts. They have length. They have depth. And one thing about their team, when you have a guy like Jokic, who as big as he is but also as cerebral as he is, you can’t really make many mistakes versus a guy like that.”
The Lakers erased a seven-point deficit and tied it with five minutes to play, but Jokic hit a 25-foot fallaway 3-pointer — the kind of ridiculously impressive shot for a big man that Jokic makes routinely. After Davis hit two free throws to tie it with 1:13 left, Jokic put the Nuggets ahead again.
James then badly missed a strange fallaway jumper with 26 seconds left. Murray missed a turnaround to give the Lakers one last chance, but James’ drive at the buzzer was thwarted by Murray and Gordon, who scored 22 points.
“For that game to go down to the wire and for the ball to be in LeBron James’ hands, those seconds were an eternity,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “When the buzzer went off, it was almost surreal for a second. Couldn’t be more proud of this group.”
James scored 21 points in the first quarter and worked desperately to keep the Lakers competitive in the final game of his 20th NBA season. But the Lakers couldn’t even force a Game 5, with an apparently exhausted Davis scoring 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter and adding 14 rebounds.
Austin Reaves scored 17 points for the Lakers, who were swept in a playoff series for the 11th time in team history, including nine best-of-seven series.
The loss ended seventh-seeded Los Angeles’ incredible turnaround after starting the season 2-10 under new coach Darvin Ham. After bolstering their roster at the trade deadline and surging into the postseason with two months of strong play, the Lakers then knocked off second-seeded Memphis and eliminated defending champion Golden State to stir their worldwide fans’ hopes for one of the most unlikely championship runs in NBA history.
“Nothing but love and respect for the Denver Nuggets,” Ham said. “Love the way they play and what they are about. We also saw ways that … I think we have an opportunity to do something special here, also, and we’ve just got to build off of this.”
Facing elimination for the first time in their remarkable playoff run, the Lakers took a 73-58 halftime lead. After tying his playoff career high for points in a quarter in his record 282nd postseason game, James matched his career high for points in any first half — but the Nuggets responded with a 36-16 third quarter.
Image credits: AP