MIAMI — For 56 years, from the first game the Rockets rolled out that red, white and blue ABA basketball to the time Nikola Jokic’s magic made us believe it was not longer an impossible dream, everybody who loves hoops in Colorado has been waiting for this day.
The Nuggets are coming home to claim a championship.
And you better believe there’s no stopping them now.
Denver beat the Heat 108-95 to take a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals and move one victory away from the first championship in franchise history.
“Let’s go Nuggets!” chanted feisty basketball fans from the Rocky Mountains, making their presence known in South Florida while staging a takeover of the Kaseya Center.
And on this Friday night, the Nuggets did it without Jokic being their most dominant player.
Although Jokic finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds, he did not score in the final 18 minutes, 29 seconds of Game 4. sitting many of the most crucial minutes of the fourth quarter, when Miami was desperately scratching and clawing to make a comeback, in foul trouble.
“You know all season long, the non-Nikola minutes have been kind of a crap shoot,” coach Michael Malone said.
Malone admitted there were times when it so pained him to watch the action with Jokic alongside him on the Denver bench that he had to peek around hands covering his eyes.
The Nuggets grew into a champion too legit to quit when they discovered their swagger didn’t have to go to the bench with Joker. With Denver ahead 86-76 with 9:24 remaining in the final period, the two-time MVP picked up his fifth foul when Heat center Bam Adebayo sold a flop as an offensive foul that Jokic could not believe.
I’m not one to blame the referees or buy conspiracy theories, but at that moment it seemed as if the NBA was wishing and whistling for a way to extend this best-of-seven-series as long as possible.
But Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown refused to let the Nuggets succumb to negative thoughts or the fighting spirit of Jimmy Butler and the Heat.
“The guys that are out there, man, they’re competing and they’re defending,” Malone said. “Our offense might not be as beautiful as it is with Nikola. But the five guys out there are defending.”
For five agonizing minutes and 15 long seconds that Jokic took a seat to nurse five fouls (and perhaps a gimpy ankle he rolled early in the contest), the Nuggets stared down the challenge of Miami, allowing the Heat to cut the deficit by only a single point.
Brown scored 11 of his 21 points in the final quarter, with an aggression to the rim that Miami coach Erik Spoelstra suggested shook his players’ confidence to get defensive stops.
“Remember, when I first came into the league, I couldn’t shoot,” said Brown, forever grateful Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth gave him a shot to play point guard when the rest of the league left him wanting for offers in free agency last summer.
From the opening minutes of this series, one point has been hammered painfully home to Miami. When Aaron Gordon decides to go beast mode, there’s very little the Heat can do except get out of the way and wince.
Gordon, who humbly took on all the dirty jobs of a role player after being a star in Orlando, led all scorers in Game 4 with 27 points, a personal playoff career high. “I just wanted to be great for my teammates,” he said, “knowing my teammates needed me and wanting to be great for my brothers.”
Alex English, the leading scorer in franchise history, watched in wonder on television from afar, and took to social media to salute “the others” who carried Jokic and the Nuggets back to Denver for the most-anticipated game in team history on Monday.
Are you ready for this, Nuggets Nation?
Ball Arena was filled to capacity for Game 4, with championship-hungry fans watching on the big screen of the arena, celebrating the Nuggets’ fifth-straight victory on the road in these playoffs.
“I have to give a huge shoutout to the 18,000 fans in Ball Arena,” Malone said. “I remember when I first got to Denver, we couldn’t get 18,000 fans in that building when we were there.”
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