It took 56 years and 38 playoff appearances for the basketball team nestled in the high plains just east of the Rocky Mountains to finally reach the peak of its sport.
It took an unheralded center from Serbia who turned into the most formidable player in the game and a Canadian point guard who found himself again after a long and arduous recovery from a career-threatening knee injury. It took patience, collaboration and a discipline born of trying, failing and learning how to keep climbing just a bit higher.
The Denver Nuggets are finally champions.
They clinched the first title in franchise history Monday night on their home court at Ball Arena, 5,280 feet above sea level — the highest elevation at which any N.B.A. championship has been won. They beat the Miami Heat, 94-89, in Game 5 to seal the victory. They were led by center Nikola Jokic, who stood quietly at the back of the stage holding his 1-year-old daughter as his team celebrated during the trophy presentation, and by point guard Jamal Murray, who cried as he looked up at the thousands of fans roaring for him. The rest of Denver’s indefatigable eight-man rotation bolstered the team’s two biggest stars until the end.
“I got news for everybody out there,” Nuggets Coach Michael Malone shouted, as the crowd erupted and confetti swirled in the air around him. “We’re not satisfied with one! We want more! We want more!”
Jokic was named the most valuable player of the finals, a nice complement to his two regular-season M.V.P. Awards. He finished Game 5 with 28 points, 16 rebounds and 4 assists, becoming the first player in N.B.A. history to lead the playoffs in points, rebounds and assists.
“If you want to be a success, you need a couple years,” Jokic 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.”
The clinching game was neither pretty nor easy. Through the first three quarters, the Nuggets struggled to make 3-point shots and convert free throws. They turned the ball over carelessly. Had they lost, they would have had to play Game 6 in Miami on Thursday. The pressure on Monday may have frayed their nerves.
“You want to end it on your home court with all the fans there, your family there,” Murray said. “You want to end it on the home court so bad.”
The Heat had a 7-point lead at halftime, and led by just 1 point at the end of the third quarter.
But in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets found the resolve to take the title. With about 10 minutes 59 seconds remaining, Murray hit a 3-pointer — only the Nuggets’ third of the game — to give the Nuggets a 4-point lead. He pranced down the court as the Heat called a timeout. It was Denver’s largest lead since the first quarter.
Later, Murray struck again. This time, Aaron Gordon blocked a jumper by Heat guard Kyle Lowry, leading to a transition basket for Murray to give the Nuggets a 5-point lead.
And with less than 30 seconds remaining, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stole a pass by Jimmy Butler and made both free throws after Lowry fouled him to give Denver a 3-point lead.
“I’m grateful, man, that we made it here,” Butler said afterward. “Came up short, but I’m blessed. I’m fortunate.”
With the win, the Nuggets departed a dubious club. There are now only 10 teams in the league that have never won an N.B.A. championship. Five have made it to the finals and lost, including the Phoenix Suns, who have come up short three times, most recently in 2021.
But the Nuggets had never even gotten that far, at least not in the N.B.A. Not since 1976, when they lost to the New York Nets in the American Basketball Association finals, had they reached a championship series.
The long drought helps explain why the Nuggets were underestimated all season. Pundits and oddsmakers questioned their ability to win, even after they took hold of first place in the Western Conference in December and never let go.
People wondered if Jokic, despite his superlative play, could lead a team this far — after all, he had never taken the Nuggets past the conference finals. Those questions may have cost him a third consecutive M.V.P. Award — an accomplishment that many said should be reserved for champions.
Some wondered if Murray would ever return to the elite level he had been playing at in 2021, when a knee injury just before the playoffs set him and Denver on a two-year journey to fully reset.
Along the way, some role players found their stride, even if they mostly went unnoticed.
Caldwell-Pope, whom the Nuggets traded for last off-season, added defense, shooting and championship experience. For a few playoff games, he brought in the ring he had won in 2020 with the Lakers and let his teammates hold it. None of them have one.
“They gave me an opportunity here, because of my championship, to be that leader — be vocal, let them know about my experience and how hard it is to get to this point we’re at now,” Caldwell-Pope said after Game 1. “I’m just trying to keep them motivated.”
Gordon, whom the Nuggets traded for in March 2021, happily became a defensive stopper after being the offensive star of the Orlando Magic.
“I’m not here for the credit,” Gordon said. “I’m here for the wins.”
Bruce Brown provided offensive sparks; Jeff Green added veteran calm; Christian Braun, a rookie, offered a youthful fearlessness that would pay off in the finals.
The Nuggets blasted through the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round and then beat the Suns in six games. They swept the Lakers in the conference finals and then sat around for a week waiting to find out whom they would meet in the finals.
Like the Nuggets, the Heat had taken a 3-0 lead in their conference finals series. But they faltered as the Boston Celtics fought back in the East and won the next three games, forcing a decisive Game 7.
“When Boston won Game 6, we’d been sitting so long it almost felt like we wasn’t in the playoffs anymore,” Green said. “Because the only thing we was doing was watching them.”
Miami, propelled by its relentless star Butler, won Game 7 for the franchise’s seventh trip to the finals, this time as the No. 8 seed. A victory would have given Miami its first championship in a decade, one far more unexpected than the three it had won.
If people overlooked Denver this season, they ignored Miami outright. The Heat barely made the playoffs and then gave even ardent believers reason to doubt when they wavered against Boston. They had an us-against-the-world mentality heading into the finals when, for once, Denver seemed to have the world on its side.
And who could blame the Nuggets if that surge of confidence flowed to their heads?
Denver took Game 1, and Jokic notched a triple-double. Afterward, the Nuggets began to celebrate as if they could feel their championship parade rumbling already. They lost focus and allowed Miami to steal Game 2, even as Jokic scored 41 points. Malone, Denver’s coach, scolded the Nuggets and questioned their effort. He wouldn’t have to do that again.
Jokic and Murray each had triple-doubles in Game 3 in front of a raucous crowd in Miami. In Game 4, Brown scored 11 points in the fourth quarter, stoking Miami’s desperation.
The Nuggets had some unusual visitors in their locker room after Game 4. The Nuggets owner E. Stanley Kroenke and his son, Josh Kroenke, the team president, grinned brightly, each holding a can of Coors. The Nuggets had just taken a 3-1 lead in the finals, and they could feel that the franchise was closing in on its first championship. Only one finals team — the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers — had ever been able to dig itself out of that deep a hole.
But the Nuggets players and coaches refused to acknowledge how close they were. They remembered what had happened after Game 1.
“We need to win one more,” Jokic said after Game 4. “I like that we didn’t relax. We didn’t get comfortable. We were still desperate. We still want it.”
Murray offered a bit more confidence. “We’re just ready to win a championship,” he said. “We have the tools to do it. It’s been on our minds for a while.”
When Murray stood on the stage after Game 5, having finally won, ESPN’s Lisa Salters asked him about his journey, about how he couldn’t even walk two years ago today because of his knee injury. As she spoke, the crowd’s cheers drowned out her voice. Murray paused and looked up at them. Tears filled his reddened eyes.
“Everything was hitting at once,” Murray said later. “From the journey, to the celebration with the guys, to enjoying the moment, to looking back on the rehab, to looking back at myself as a kid.”
Malone’s mind was already on the next championship.
Pat Riley, the president of the Miami Heat, who has won nine N.B.A. championships as either a player, assistant coach, head coach or executive, once shared with Malone a message that Malone used to have displayed in his office.
“It talked about the evolution in this game and 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,” Malone said. “And the last step is after a champion is to be a dynasty.”
But his players weren’t ready to think about that yet. As he spoke, they were dousing the locker room and each other with champagne, drops of which sprinkled from the Nuggets logo on the ceiling. The players lit cigars, adding the heavy scent of cigar smoke to their celebration.
Jokic popped in and out of the locker room, sometimes spraying champagne on his teammates, sometimes pouring it right on their heads. He said many times during the playoffs that he was most proud of the success they’d had together.
He had been the first player off the court after the trophy presentation, and had walked to the locker room by himself holding his finals M.V.P. trophy. He had been their best player throughout the season, but he wasn’t swept up in the ecstasy that had engulfed his teammates.
“It’s good,” Jokic said, when asked about his emotions after winning the championship. “We did a job.”
Another reporter tried again a few minutes later, this time asking if he was excited for the parade the city would have to celebrate the championship.
“When is parade?” Jokic said, turning to a Nuggets staff member in the room.
He was told it was Thursday.
“No,” Jokic lamented. “I need to go home.”
Then he finally relented just a little bit, and acknowledged that winning a championship felt “amazing.”
“It’s a good feeling when you know that you did something that nobody believes, and it’s just us, it’s just the organization, Denver Nuggets believing in us, every player believing in each other,” Jokic said. “And I think that’s the most important thing.”