Nuggets sweep Lakers, will make first NBA Finals appearance

ByOhm Youngmisuk ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 23, 2023

LOS ANGELES --LeBron James tried everything he could, including scoring the most points in a playoff half in his storied career, yet it wasn't enough to stop Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets from reaching their first-ever NBA Finals.

In a scintillating playoff duel with James, Jokic turned in yet another triple-double Monday night to help the Nuggets complete their first playoff sweep in franchise history with a 113-111 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 at Arena.

Jokic -- who was named the Magic Johnson Western Conference finals MVP -- fended off an incredible throwback performance from James, who scored 31 points in the first half before finishing with 40 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists.

James, 38, became the oldest player in NBA history to score 40 points in a playoff game, but his final drive to the basket to force overtime was denied when Jamal Murray got a hand on the basketball before James was able to get a shot off that was blocked by Aaron Gordon with 1.4 seconds left.

Murray celebrated with a scream and was mobbed by the Denver bench when time expired as James could only watch. For the Nuggets, the NBA Finals has been a long time coming. It has taken Denver 46 seasons to reach this point, the most seasons before a Finals appearance in NBA history. Denver had 93 playoff wins entering Monday night, the most all time without a Finals berth.

The Nuggets, though, are focused on getting four more wins. Considering how Murray and Jokic are playing as perhaps the most formidable duo in the league, an NBA championship feels closer than ever.

"We want to go all the way and stay locked in," Murray said of himself and Jokic. "I think our chemistry is at an all-time high, the way we play, the way we read the game without even speaking. We talk that language on the court.

"It's just beautiful basketball, honestly. It's so fun to play with this team and with him and with the coaching staff that has groomed us into the team that we are. We've got four more wins to go."

Jokic collected his NBA playoff-record eighth triple-double of the postseason with 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists in 45 minutes. Five of his points came in the final 2:50 on perhaps the two biggest baskets of the game.

Jokic averaged a triple-double in the second round to eliminate Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and thePhoenix Suns. And he averaged a triple-double to sweep James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers.

"I think he's showing other people nationally that he's real," Denver coach Michael Malone said. "Like what he's doing is real. The [two] MVPs are real. The triple-doubles are real. The silly narratives [against him for MVP] this year are just silly and somewhat ignorant. I think Nikola has gone through three rounds now where he's averaging a triple-double in the playoffs.

"Have you seen any stat padding out there? I'm serious, enough of the silliness. The guy is a great player; give him his damn respect. Stop chopping him down at the knees. He's a great player, and give him the respect he deserves."

After taking a 3-0 lead in the series Saturday night, Jokic said he wasn't scared but was "worried" about trying to close the Lakers out with James on the other side. Jokic said the Lakers superstar is capable of doing "everything." It was as if Jokic was foretelling what was to come.

James, who played all but four seconds at the end of the first half, was determined to avoid being swept for the first time in a playoff series before the NBA Finals. He has been swept twice in his career, both times in the Finals by the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, respectively.

As if that wasn't enough motivation, James' pregame warm-up took place early -- when the Western Conference finals trophy presentation rehearsal was being conducted.

Once the game started, James made 7 of his first 9 shots, including one that was supposed to be a pass that dropped in from behind the 3-point arc. He had 21 points at the end of the first quarter, tied for the most in a first quarter when facing elimination by any player over the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

He sank all four of his 3-point attempts and had 31 points by halftime, the most in a playoff half in his career.

"That first half was vintage LeBron James," Malone said. "Having coached him for five years in Cleveland, he understood what time it was with their team, firmly back against the wall. In that first half he showed why he's one of the all-time great players, literally put his team on his back and just went at us."

The Lakers certainly treated this game like there was no tomorrow. They elected to bring D'Angelo Russell off the bench for the first time in the playoffs. The rest of the starting lineup each had eight or more points by halftime to help the Lakers take a 73-58 lead into the intermission.

But the Lakers' lead would be gone by the 4:39 mark of the third, when Jokic hit Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a layup with a foul, giving Jokic his 10th assist of the game and his sixth triple-double in his past eight games.

The Nuggets went on a 34-14 run to take a five-point lead into the fourth quarter.

With both teams playing a tightly contested fourth quarter, Jokic picked up his fourth and fifth personal on the offensive end with 5:19 remaining. But the Nuggets kept him in the game.

After James scored to reach 40 points, Jokic answered with a fadeaway 3-pointer at the shot clock buzzer with 2:50 to play.

With the game tied at 111, Jokic snapped the tie with a driving layup with 51 seconds remaining. On the ensuing possession, James missed a fadeaway 3, but Murray could not seal the game as he missed a shot inside the paint.

With 4.0 seconds left, the Lakers called timeout, but the Nuggets' defense denied James' drive, setting off their Western Conference championship celebration.

Jokic was asked afterward how winning the Western Conference finals MVP compares to his two regular-season MVP trophies. He brought up this year's MVP and said Philadelphia'sJoel Embiid is deserving no matter what people might think now with how Jokic has dominated this postseason.

"To be honest, I don't think about MVPs anymore," Jokic said. "I think people are just mean and saying that Embiid shouldn't have won it. I think he should have won it. I think he was playing, if you watch it, extremely, extremely tough basketball through the whole season. ... He was really amazing in 82 games or however many games he played."

But Jokic is the MVP big man who is now heading to his first NBA Finals.

"You're just happy that you won a game," Jokic said of his emotions. "You beat a really, really good team. Every game, but the first game was so close. Anyone could have won it, and we just find a way to win the game.

"Especially we were down 15, and to come back and win the game, it was just probably happiness."

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