IT WASN’T PRETTY, but the Denver Nuggets are the 2023 NBA champions after closing out their seven-game series against the Miami Heat 4-1 on their home floor.
The Nuggets were forced to stave off a signature late-game rally from the ‘zombie’ Heat, led by star forward Jimmy Butler, who scored 13 points in the final quarter to make it a 1-point game with a little over two minutes left. The Nuggets were able to hold their nerve, with Bruce Brown coming up with a crucial offensive board and putback before Butler turned the ball over and the Heat were forced to foul. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope drained both free throws to give his team a buffer that allowed them to run out 94-89 winners. The Heat were seeking to become the first No. 8 seed to win a title.
The victory marked the Nuggets’ first title in the franchise’s 47-year history, with superstar-centre and two-time league MVP Nikola Jokić earning finals MVP honours, amid MVP chants from the home crowd. The Serbian big man, who was famously drafted with the 41st pick in the 2014 draft during a Taco Bell commercial, led the Nuggets with averages of 30 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists across the five games.
The Joker’s performance confirmed his status as the best player in basketball, silencing doubters who had said that he had yet to prove himself on the NBA’s biggest stage. Those critics overlooked the fact that the Nuggets were decimated by injuries to key players Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jnr. the last two years, robbing them of any realistic chance of contending.
This year Jokić lost the regular season MVP award to the 76ers’ Joel Embiid, many voters seemingly reluctant to crown him a three-time winner without any finals silverware to show for it. He now boasts the two trophies that count: the NBA title and the Bill Russell trophy for finals MVP.
Jokić’s 10 triple doubles in this year’s play-offs is a record and he’s already third on the all-time play-off triple-double list behind Magic Johnson and LeBron James. He’s certainly got the game to catch them. Jokić is arguably the best passing centre of all time, as well as one of the finest shooting big men. That unique package makes the Serb a cheat code: double him and he’ll find an open man, play him straight up and he’ll either shoot over the top of the defender or back them down into the paint where his footwork and feathery touch make him a constant scoring threat.
If Jokić has a weakness, it was supposedly his defence. He’s certainly not the defensive stopper that Embiid or the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo are, but his big body and surprising stamina mean he’s no longer easy pickings.
It’s easy to forget now but Jokić entered the league a dour, doughy player. He’s still understated and famously humble – he doesn’t have Instagram and doesn’t go in for the cars and swag most NBA players relentlessly flaunt. Instead he prefers the company of his racehorses.
But at the same time, he’s no longer the tubby kid he once was, dramatically slimming down during COVID back in 2020. He’s been largely unstoppable ever since.
In any finals series, the team with the better player usually wins – LeBron’s 2015 and 2018 Cavs’ teams are perhaps the rare exceptions. Giannis claimed the unofficial mantle as the world’s best player after the Bucks’ win in 2021. Steph Curry grasped it briefly with the Warriors’ win last year. Now, at just 28 and entering his prime, there can no longer be any argument: Jokić is the new king. And the Nuggets are on the threshold of a dynasty.
Ben Jhoty covers sports and wellness for Esquire Australia.