LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists, and the Denver Nuggets advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in team history Monday night, sweeping the Western Conference finals with a 113-111 victory 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 finish in Game 4 to earn their first conference title in their 47 NBA seasons.
James finished with 40 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists after the highest-scoring postseason half of his career, but even the top scorer in NBA history couldn’t keep the deep, dynamic Nuggets from their sixth consecutive victory overall.
James missed two tying shots in the final seconds, with Aaron Gordon appearing to block his shot at the buzzer.
Jokic earned his eighth triple-double of the playoffs by the third quarter, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s 1967 NBA record for triple-doubles in a single postseason. The Serbian big man also led the Nuggets’ tenacious defensive effort despite picking up his fifth foul midway through the fourth quarter — and when Denver needed a big basket, Jokic delivered that as well.
The Lakers erased a seven-point deficit and tied it with five minutes to play, but Jokic hit a 25-foot fallaway 3-pointer. After Anthony Davis hit two free throws to tie it with 1:11 left, Jokic muscled his way past Davis for the tiebreaking layup.
James then badly missed a strange fallaway jumper with 26 seconds left. After Murray missed a turnaround to give the Lakers one last chance, James’ drive at the buzzer was thwarted by Murray and Gordon, who scored 22 points.
The Nuggets will cap their superb season under coach Michael Malone by playing for their first NBA championship. Denver both eliminated the Lakers for the first time in eight playoff meetings and swept a playoff series for the first time, likely earning several days off before the finals.
Nikola Jokic and Michael Malone celebrate the first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history pic.twitter.com/Ic7y6hkkeZ— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 23, 2023
Unless the Boston Celtics make basketball history by rallying from their 3-0 deficit in the East finals, Denver will host the eighth-seeded Miami Heat to open the NBA Finals, beginning June 1.
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 an apparently 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 in a playoff series for the 11th time in team history, including nine best-of-seven series.
The loss ended seventh-seeded Los Angeles’ incredible turnaround after starting the season 2-10 under new coach Darvin Ham. After bolstering their roster at the trade deadline and surging into the postseason with two months of strong play, the Lakers then knocked off second-seeded Memphis and eliminated defending champion Golden State to stir their worldwide fans’ hopes for one of the most unlikely championship runs in NBA history.
Facing elimination for the first time in their remarkable playoff run, James and the Lakers responded with their best half of the series, taking a 73-58 halftime lead on James’ broad shoulders. He had 21 points in the first quarter, tying his playoff career high for a quarter in his record 282nd postseason game. He then matched his career high for points in any first half.
But the Nuggets responded with a relentless third quarter, taking their first lead less than eight minutes after halftime. Denver pushed its lead to seven before the Lakers rallied, with Davis’ putback dunk tying it with 5:02 to play.
Nuggets: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope converted a four-point play in the first quarter. He finished with 13 points. ... The Nuggets have yet to trail in any series, and they’re 8-0 at home in the playoffs – 10-0 since March. Denver is 12-3 overall in the postseason.
Lakers: James got an accidental 3-pointer in the first half when his lob pass to Rui Hachimura went in the basket. ... Ham shook up his starting lineup for the Lakers’ last chance, 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. ... James’ 21 points were the most by a Lakers player in a playoff first quarter since at least 1997. ... Veteran Tristan Thompson had four points in 10 minutes during the most significant playing time of his Lakers career, which began in the final weekend of the regular season. … Kyrie Irving watched the game from courtside. The star free-agent guard has been linked to a reunion with James on the Lakers next season. Other fans at courtside included Vin Diesel, Adam Sandler and Aaron Donald.