DENVER — There have been 3,787 games played in Denver Nuggets history. And none was bigger than Monday night.
No, seriously. Since Denver joined the NBA in 1976, Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals represented a zenith. They faced the Los Angeles Lakers, a team with a resume of crushing their dreams. All that stood between the Nuggets and history was 60 minutes.
What happened next is impossible to make up. Hyperbole doesn't fit.
The Nuggets, a team that was too hurt last season, too defensively challenged this April, are going to the NBA Finals.
After spotting LeBron James 31 first-half points and trailing in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets vanquished the Lakers 113-111 in Los Angeles, our favorite party crashers storming their way onto the sport's biggest stage.
There's no need for restraint or to try to make national pundits understand. The truth is simple: Thought to be a No. 1 seed in name only, the Nuggets showed they were the West's Best, dispatching Minnesota, Phoenix, and the league's beloved Lakers.
The Nuggets have not lost a home playoff game. They have won six straight games overall, regardless of venue, playing their best when it matters most.
Denver trailed 73-58 at half Monday and were subject to some egregious calls. At one point, the refs bailed out Anthony Davis in a way that would have embarrassed the federal government. Coach Michael Malone went nuclear, using words that will never end up on a Hallmark card. Often coaches do this for show, but it amounts to wasted time and energy.
Malone, though, represented his team. They were not going away. They had their foot on the Lakers' chest in this series and wanted to take away their last breath.
Like so many moments the past three years, the magic started with Nikola Jokic. He is the hub of their universe, the two-time MVP who makes all the spokes of the tire fit.
This team, more than any other, has taken on his personality, blending an obsession with winning with humility and unselfishness. I have said this repeatedly. The best squads I have covered — the 1990 CU Buffs, the 1997-98 Broncos, the 2007 Rockies, the 2015 Broncos — all played for something bigger than themselves.
There is a reason that Malone breaks down every victorious postgame huddle with "Family!" It is symbolic and prophetic. The Nuggets won Monday because they had each other's backs. Jokic went off in the third quarter and messed around and posted his eighth triple double, the most ever in a single playoff run, breaking Wilt Chamberlain's record set in 1967.
But when Denver had to finish, it was with defense. If you had said the Nuggets would win with a stand in 2021 or 2022, the laughs would have been audible. The Nuggets treated defense as an annoyance, teasing with effort that made fans feel catfished when the playoffs rolled around.
This time was different. This team is different. With four seconds left, LeBron James, the sport's all-time leading scorer, took the ball and attempted to go downhill with more force than Mikaela Shiffrin. Then, something weird happened. Aaron Gordon and Jamal Murray stopped him. James lost control of the ball and never got a shot off.
The buzzer sounded, the noise another audible mile marker in this team's journey. The Nuggets owned 93 playoff wins entering Monday night, the most ever for a team without a finals berth. That blemish no longer exists, replaced by smiles and howls of happiness.
At one point, there was a Serbian Celebration as Jokic's brothers lifted coach Malone off his feet. Unbridled joy causes delirium, especially when nearly five decades in the making.
There are many reasons fans will wake up Tuesday with goosebumps.
Playoff Murray is someone who widens eyes. And the contributions of Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., and Bruce Brown, who have chosen to fit in where needed on a nightly basis, cannot be dismissed.
But the Nuggets advanced to uncharted territory in the NBA Finals because of Jokic, who was named the Magic Johnson Western Conference finals MVP.
He is inevitable as a scorer and sees the court like he had LASIK on the eyes in the back of his head.
Jokic plays below the rim in a way that’s a Beethoven symphony in a league of primal screams of "And1s!"
There is no one like him. And there's no one like this Nuggets team.
"For that game to go down to the wire and for the ball to be in LeBron James' hands, those seconds were an eternity," Malone said. "When the buzzer went off, it was almost surreal for a second. I couldn't be more proud of this group."
The Finals begin June 1, and all games will be on Denver7.