The Denver Nuggets are going to the NBA Finals.

After weathering a hot shooting start from the Los Angeles Lakers in the first half of Game 4, the Nuggets roared all the way back in the second half to reclaim a lead they never relinquished, winning the game 113-111 to sweep the Lakers in four games. Aaron Gordon blocked LeBron James on a floater with just a couple of seconds left, and the clock expired before the Lakers were able to collect the rebound.

“When the buzzer went off, it was almost surreal for a second,” Michael Malone shared postgame. “Couldn’t be more proud of our group. This is for all of our fans back in Denver.”

Nikola Jokić had his eighth triple-double of the 2023 playoffs on Monday night, passing Wilt Chamberlain for the most triple-doubles in a single season in NBA history. Jokić put up 30 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, one steal, and three blocks in 45 minutes, playing the entire second half. He scored the game-winning basket while driving around Anthony Davis for a layup with less than a minute to go, and the Nuggets held onto the lead with great defense from Gordon and others in the final seconds.

It’s safe to say the Nuggets were excited.

Here are my takeaways from the Nuggets Game 4 matchup with the Lakers on Monday night:

Nuggets forget to play defense in first half

Entering tonight’s game, the Nuggets had an opportunity to send a message that they wouldn’t mess around in this series despite being up 3-0.

Well, that was half true. They messed around in the first half, trying to get through it with just a seven-man group and not making some of the rotations they needed to in order to cover the Lakers. Denver allowed several open or lightly contested shots in the paint, had miscues to generate wide open threes, and didn’t get back in transition defense as quickly as they needed to.

LeBron James was the player to set the tone for the Lakers. He had a brilliant first half and was the best player on the floor during that time, scoring 31 points in the first half alone and proving unstoppable at times. LeBron finished with 40 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists, playing well enough for the Lakers to win.

The Nuggets also dealt with some foul trouble in the first half. Jokić racked up three fouls, picking up his third on a questionable call right before halftime.

The Lakers led 73-58 at halftime, and it felt like all of the momentum was on their side. At least, until the second half happened.

Then the Nuggets absolutely locked in

The Nuggets took a little bit of time to get into gear, but once they did, they were nearly unstoppable out there. Jokić and Murray led the way, but it was an entire team effort on both ends of the floor to close the gap the Lakers amassed in the first half. In the third quarter, the Nuggets outscored the Lakers 36-16, taking advantage of some missed layups by Lakers players and converting on the other end in the pressure moments. Jokić in particular was fantastic, grabbing every rebound under the sun and converting shots at the rim on the other end. He accumulated his triple-double during the third quarter and was simply fantastic in helping the Nuggets reclaim the lead.

In the fourth quarter, the Lakers made a couple of runs, but the Nuggets countered them at every turn. Whether it was Bruce Brown, or Aaron Gordon, or Jokić, or Murray, the Nuggets responded every single time the Lakers tried to regain the lead. Denver’s defense tightened up significantly, and though LeBron continued to make plays, the Nuggets mostly cut off the easy stuff for the Lakers, allowing just 22 points in the fourth quarter.

On the final play, LeBron James attacked Aaron Gordon going baseline and rose up for a jumper, but Gordon blocked him in a crowd with Murray helping out. The Nuggets needed a stop in that moment on one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, and they got it done.

Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets earned this moment

The Nuggets feel like a team of destiny.

They put in the work, to be clear. This is their moment. They’ve worked hard for everything they have.

Sometimes, you need the extra stuff to go right for you though, and too often, the Nuggets have been faced with a moment when they need to perform at their highest level. The Nuggets, to defeat being the Nuggets, have had to rise above and make play after play throughout this playoff run.

Tonight, it was Nikola Jokić who played hero.

The Nuggets have gone through the ringer nationally, taking punches left and right at their boring style of play, their boring superstar, how they don’t have great players, and how they aren’t a great team. It’s been incessant, and never does it hurt so much (and feel so good) when you defeat the narratives and officially prove everybody wrong.

Tonight was about letting NuggLife die.

The Nuggets have heard everything under the sun about their MVP and their team. They know who he is though. They know he’s for real, and during these playoffs, the rest of the world got to see it too. Jokić holding the Magic Johnson Western Conference playoff MVP trophy in the Lakers arena is poetic justice at its finest, though don’t tell Jokić that. He won’t acknowledge it. Others do the talking for him though.

The Nuggets, whoever they face, will have confidence in their team and their process because of their leaders. Jokić has been part of that for eight years and helped to establish a beautiful culture of basketball, sharing in the love with others constantly. He wants to see others succeed, but he’s grown enough to know when he has to be the player that helps the team succeed the most. It’s been a beautiful to watch for a long, long time.

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