LOS ANGELES — Nikola Jokic is a player unlike almost anything the NBA has ever seen, and now he’s taking his Denver Nuggets where they’ve never been.
Jokic had 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists, and the Nuggets advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in team history on Monday night, sweeping the Western Conference Finals with a victory of 113-111 over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Jamal Murray scored 25 points for the top-seeded Nuggets, who overcame LeBron James’ 31-point first half and a 15-point halftime deficit with a tenacious Game 4 finish to win their first conference title in 47 NBA seasons.
“It’s amazing,” Murray said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s surreal. We’re going to keep making history, that’s it. We’re going to keep that spirit.”
Jokic won his eighth playoff triple-double in the third quarter, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s 1967 NBA record for triple-doubles in a single postseason. The bulky Serbian center with the grace of a playmaker also led the Nuggets’ dogged defensive effort despite his fifth foul midway through the fourth quarter.
Jokic didn’t leave the floor for the final 33 minutes of Game 4 – and when Denver needed a big basket, Jokic delivered it too. He passed Anthony Davis for the game’s final points on a layup with 51 seconds left.
“I think that’s why the playoffs are so nice and so interesting, because you don’t care about how tired you are,” Jokic said. “You don’t care about minutes, fouls, shots, percentage. You just want to win a game. Some games today we weren’t playing good defense sometimes, (but) you can win it any way you can.
James finished with 40 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists after the highest-scoring half of his playoff career, but even the leading scorer in NBA history couldn’t stop the deep and dynamic Nuggets from claiming their sixth consecutive win overall.
James missed two equalizing shots in the closing seconds, with Aaron Gordon getting official credit for blocking his equalizing try at the buzzer.
The Nuggets will cap off their superb season by playing for their first NBA championship. Denver both eliminated the Lakers for the first time in eight playoff games and swept a playoff series for the first time, likely earning several days off before the Finals.
Unless the Boston Celtics make basketball history by rallying from their 3-0 Eastern Finals deficit, Denver will host the eighth seed Miami Heat to open the Eastern Finals. the NBA, starting June 1.
“Me and AD were just talking in the locker room (and) we came to the consensus that this is one of the best teams, if not the best team, we’ve played together in the four years,” James said of the Nuggets. . “Just well orchestrated, well put together. They have scores. They have shooting. They have the game. They have intelligence. They have length. They have depth. And one thing about their team, when you have a guy like Jokic, as tall as he is but as cerebral as he is, you can’t really make a lot of mistakes against a guy like that.
The Lakers erased a seven-point deficit and tied it with five minutes left, but Jokic hit a drop 3-pointer from 25 feet – the kind of ridiculously impressive shot for a big man that Jokic does on a regular basis. After Davis had two free throws to tie the game with 1:13 to go, Jokic put the Nuggets back in front again.
James then badly missed a weird drop jump with 26 seconds left. Murray missed a turnover to give the Lakers one last chance, but James’ drive at the buzzer was thwarted by Murray and Gordon, who scored 22 points.
“To get this game to the wire and get the ball in the hands of LeBron James, those seconds felt like an eternity,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “When the buzzer went off, it was almost surreal for a second. I couldn’t be prouder of this band.
James scored 21 points in the first quarter and worked desperately to keep the Lakers competitive in the final game of his 20th NBA season. But the Lakers couldn’t even force a Game 5, with a seemingly exhausted Davis scoring 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter and adding 14 rebounds.
Austin Reaves scored 17 points for the Lakers, who were swept into a playoff series for the 11th time in team history, including a series-best nine of seven.
The loss ended an incredible turnaround for seventh-seeded Los Angeles after starting the season 2-10 under new coach Darvin Ham. After bolstering their roster at the trade deadline and surging into the playoffs with two months of solid play, the Lakers then knocked out second-seeded Memphis and knocked out defending champion Golden State to raise hopes. of their fans around the world for one of the most unlikely championship races. in NBA history.
“Nothing but love and respect for the Denver Nuggets,” Ham said. “I love the way they play and what they do. We also saw ways that… I think we have an opportunity to do something special here too, and we just have to take advantage of that.
Facing elimination for the first time in their remarkable playoff run, the Lakers took a 73-58 halftime lead. After tying his postseason career-high for points in a quarter in his record-breaking 282nd playoff game, James tied his career-high for points in any first half — but the Nuggets have responded with a 36-16 third quarter.
Nuggets: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope converted a four-point play in the first quarter. He finished with 13 points. … The Nuggets haven’t trailed in any series yet, and they’re 8-0 at home in the playoffs — 10-0 since March. Denver is 12-3 overall in the playoffs.
Lakers: James got an accidental 3-pointer in the first half when his lobbed pass to Rui Hachimura went into the basket. … Ham shook up their starting line-up, replacing struggling D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt with Dennis Schröder and Hachimura. The moves immediately worked, with the two new starters combining for 19 points in the first half. … Kyrie Irving watched the game from the field. The star free agent guard has been linked with a reunion with James over the Lakers next season. Other fans present pitchside included Vin Diesel, Adam Sandler and Aaron Donald.
AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP–Sports