The Denver Nuggets (69-33 straight up, 57-45 against the spread) are NBA champions for the first time in franchise history.
Mike Malone’s team closed Miami out in Monday’s Game 5, winning 94-89 as an eight-point home favorite. The Heat covered the spread, though, while the 183 combined points dropped ‘under’ the 210-point total.
Nikola Jokic had already won two NBA MVP trophies and now he can add the Bill Russell trophy for NBA Finals MVP to his collection of hardware. He had 28 points, 16 rebounds and four assists, hitting 12-of-16 field-goal attempts to help his club overcome a 51-44 halftime deficit.
Denver covered for third-quarter bets (-3.5 3Q, +3.5 adjusted) and second-half wagers (-9 2H, -2 adjusted). Jokic’s points scored prop slithered ‘under’ 28.5 and his assists prop also stayed South of the number. His rebounds prop (12.5 or 13.5 at varying odds) went ‘over.’
Jokic’s jumper with 4:43 remaining gave the Nuggets’ their biggest lead, 83-76. Jimmy Butler answered with a 24-footer from the corner late in the shot clock off a baseline drive and dish from Caleb Martin.
When Kentavious Caldwell-Pope countered with a 3-ball to put Denver back up by seven, Butler, who had only made two shots from the field before the prior possession, drained another trey to make it 86-82 with 3:47 left.
After Miami got a stop, Butler elevated for another corner 3-pointer and was fouled by Aaron Gordon. Denver challenged the call after Butler clearly put his leg out. When the officials reviewed the call, they stuck with it by explaining that Gordon had invaded the space where Butler would come down (The Zaza Rule).
Butler nailed all three free throws and it was a one-point game. After Michael Porter Jr. missed a second shot in a two-possession span, Butler was clearly feeling it. He drove the lane and pulled up for a 10-footer that was all net to put the Heat ahead by one.
With 2:24 left, it was nut-cutting time in the Mile High City. With the ball at the top of the key late into the shot clock, Jokic muscled his way into the paint off the dribble for a layup.
With Denver back in the lead, Butler missed a deep 3-pointer but Kyle Lowry kept the ball alive by tipping it to a teammate. Moments later, Butler drew a foul on Jokic in the act of shooting.
He made both free throws for 13 points in a row in a 2-minute and 32-second stretch. Miami led by one with 1:58 remaining.
On Denver’s next possession, Jamal Murray’s long fadeaway jumper from the baseline was well contested by Bam Adebayo. When the shot went up, Lowry had dropped into the paint to help Butler box out the taller Aaron Gordon.
It was probably the smart move by Lowry to help on Gordon, as his man Bruce Brown was in the corner. However, Murray’s miss bounced high off the front rim to the opposite side. With Lowry and Butler jockeying with Gordon for position, the ball stayed in the air long enough for Brown to slide into an open area for a putback basket.
The Nuggets were back ahead by one with 1:31 remaining. After both teams traded stops, Miami took over with 44.1 left.
Butler drove deep into the lane on Murray, only to get closed off by help from Jokic. As he pivoted away from the basket looking for an open teammate, he seemed to be losing his balance. Fearing he was about to travel by dragging his pivot foot, Butler made an ill-advised pass that was stolen by Caldwell-Pope. (In fairness, there was nobody open for Butler to throw to anyway.)
Lowry wisely gave an immediate foul with 24.1 ticks left, but Caldwell-Pope made both free throws. After a timeout, Miami had plenty of time to just look for a quick and easy two-point basket with Denver focusing on defending a potential tying 3-pointer.
But Butler forced a long 3-pointer too quickly with Gordon all in his face. It was way off and Brown was fouled with 14.1 seconds remaining. He made both free throws and after a Miami miss, it was over.
Give credit to Denver’s defense, but Miami had all sorts of chances to win the game and hook up its money-line backers. Other than Butler’s 13-point eruption at crunch time, the Heat couldn’t buy a basket in the second half when it was limited to merely 38 points and only 18 in the fourth quarter.
Miami went 33-of-96 on FGAs (34.4%) and were an abysmal 9-of-35 from downtown (25.7%). After playing so well in Games 1 and 2, Gabe Vincent had a third straight dud. He made only 3-of-13 FGAs.
Butler finished with 21 points, three steals, three rebounds and five assists compared to only one (costly) turnover, but he made just 5-of-18 FGAs. Adebayo played a team-high 44 minutes and fought hard on every possession from start to finish. He had 20 points, 12 boards, one steal and one blocked shot.
Lowry, the 37-year-old veteran, brought great energy all night. He fueled much of Miami’s offensive success in the first half when it surged into the lead. Lowry finished with 12 points, nine rebounds, two steals, one blocked shot and four assists compared to just one turnover.
With the exception of the first quarter in Game 2, Strus had struggled mightily with his shooting the entire series. He was better in Game 5, contributing 12 points and eight rebounds. Nobody for Miami made 50 percent of their shots, with Martin (10 points and five boards) coming the closest by hitting 4-of-9 FGAs.
Porter had a terrible series, but he had his best performance last night. He produced 16 points, 13 rebounds and three assists with only one turnover. Murray coughed up six turnovers, but he still managed 14 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
Caldwell-Pope was spectacular on defense all night, and his three blocked shots and two steals don’t do him justice. He also had 11 points, four rebounds and a pair of assists.
Denver committed more turnovers (14) than Miami (eight). The Nuggets were horrible shooting the three (5-of-28, 17.9%) and at the charity stripe, where they made just 13-of-23 attempts (56.5%).
But Malone’s club defended its ass off in the second half, controlled the glass with a 57-44 rebounding advantage and did just enough to win a ring.
Jokic is the first player in NBA history to lead the league in points (600), rebounds (269) and assists (190) in the playoffs. At the age of 28 in his seventh NBA season, he absolutely dominated the playoffs by averaging 30.0 points, 13.5 rebounds, 9.5 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocked shots per game. Jokick made 54.8 percent of his FGAs, 46.1 percent of his 3-pointers and 79.9 percent of his free throws.
Miami won the East for the second time in four seasons, only to come up short in the NBA Finals again. Nevertheless, it was an incredible postseason run.
The Heat became only the second No. 8 seed to make it to the finals. Erik Spoelstra’s squad lost to Atlanta in the play-in tournament and was facing elimination when it trailed Chicago by three with less than three minutes remaining.
Miami rallied to win that one and then beat No. 1 seed Milwaukee in five games. The Heat took the Knicks out in six games in the East semifinals. Next, they took a 3-0 series lead on No. 2 seed Boston, only to lose three in a row.
Facing a Game 7 at Boston as a generous underdog, Miami won by double digits. In 22 postseason games, Butler averaged 26.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists (compared to 1.9 turnovers) and 1.8 steals per game.
As of Tuesday morning, FanDuel had Denver and Milwaukee listed as next year’s co-favorites with +460 odds. Boston has the next-shortest odds at +500, followed by Phoenix (+700), Golden St. (+1200 or 12/1), Philadelphia (12/1), Cleveland (19/1), the L.A. Lakers (19/1), the L.A. Clippers (21/1) and Miami (25/1).