The Denver Nuggets are going to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

There have been times when they’ve been close before, but never have they appeared on the largest stage the NBA has to offer. The Western Conference Finals have generally been a place of pain for the Nuggets, often at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers (1985, 2009, 2020). It’s all the more fitting that the Nuggets had to go through the Lakers in their first step toward eradicating NuggLife once and for all.

The second step is of course to beat the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics.

Before all of that though, to understand how we got here: let’s go back to April of 2022…

Apr 27, 2022; San Francisco, California, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) hug after game five of the first round for the 2022 NBA playoffs at Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets are hurting in more ways than one.

It’s April 27th, 2022, and the Nuggets have just lost to the Golden State Warriors in five games. It took everything to win Game 4, and the Nuggets pushed the Warriors in Game 5, but they ultimately fell victim to the eventual NBA champions. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jordan Poole ran the Nuggets guard rotation ragged, and Nikola Jokić didn’t have the mobility to cover for Denver’s perimeter mistakes. That, along with the Nuggets of course missing Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., proved to be too much to overcome.

The Nuggets knew rehab was going well for Murray and Porter, just not as quickly as they would have hoped back in December of 2021. Murray was in the process of returning to the court but never made it back. When Porter sustained a minor setback on his road to recovery, the Nuggets made the executive decision to shut him down in March. Denver would see things out with the current group and give it their all when the playoffs rolled around, but they knew they had to be even better.

Jokić did what he could offensively to keep the Nuggets around though, and his overall performance gave the Nuggets confidence in him as the leader of a championship group. Jokić averaged 31 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists per game while being guarded primarily by Draymond Green and Kevon Looney.

It wasn’t Jokić’s best series, but he handled the pressure extremely well in the final three games of the series. He did so well in fact that the Nuggets were able to make some major decisions in the offseason focusing in on the defensive end…

The Denver Nuggets made sweeping changes to the roster during the 2022 offseason and even into the 2022-23 season. Denver’s three goals? Defense, versatility, and intelligence. Every player the Nuggets added had to check at least one or two of those boxes, even if it meant changing up the previous roster.

Out went Monte Morris, Will Barton, Austin Rivers, Facundo Campazzo, Bryn Forbes, Markus Howard, JaMychal Green, and DeMarcus Cousins. Six of the players were 6’5″ or shorter, while Green and Cousins simply didn’t have the mobility the Nuggets were hoping to use off their bench behind Jokić.

In came Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, Ish Smith, Christian Braun, Peyton Watson, DeAndre Jordan, Jack White, and Collin Gillespie. What stands out about this group is that four of the players were 6’5″ or shorter, but the two guys they knew would play most were smart, heady, defensive-minded veterans with wingspan and athleticism.

The only player in Denver’s primary rotation that wasn’t capable of being a positive defender this year was Bones Hyland. The Nuggets tried to make it work with Bones and gave him plenty of opportunities to shine in a bench role, but the Nuggets demanded too much of Bones defensively, and the relationship frayed between him and Michael Malone, who knew that defense would be Denver’s title ticket. The Nuggets decided to cut ties at the trade deadline, replacing Bones with…effectively nobody. Denver did add Reggie Jackson and Thomas Bryant, but neither player proved to be a strong fit with the current group either due to defensive weaknesses.

Instead, the Nuggets leaned into their preferred identity: surrounding Jokić and Murray with willing, capable, and versatile defenders. Even Porter fell into that group in the latter portions of the season after getting his legs back under him again. Denver decided that their starting unit (including Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon surrounding their three max contracts) would be best complemented by Brown, Braun, and Green when the playoffs rolled around, affording maximum versatility for a shortened rotation.

The Nuggets spent a lot of time honing and refining their craft. Throughout the regular season, they went through stretches of elite play in December, January, and February. That’s when the team knew just how elite they could be. On the fringes of the regular season in October/November and March/April, the Nuggets weren’t as focused and perhaps fooled the casual observer into thinking they were an up-and-down contender. It was all part of Denver’s designs though. They knew how good they were and knew how to correctly pace the regular season, which stands out more strongly in hindsight than ever before.

Jokić and Murray have carried the day, but Jeff Green still has a mostly neutral plus-minus when on the court (-2 in 278 minutes) in the playoffs, something the Nuggets have rarely seen before. During the regular season, Green’s plus-minus was -193 in nearly 1,100 minutes, their worst on the team. They were especially losing the minutes with Jokić off the court. In the playoffs, the Nuggets are merely -5 in the 142 minutes Jokić hasn’t played this postseason. That lack of “bad” options in the rotation has helped Denver consistently build in a positive way.

Credit a large portion of that to Murray, Porter, and Brown, whose usage rates rise dramatically in those minutes. They have become the stars when Jokić sits, something that Murray and Porter are paid to be. Brown has been a surprise though, and it’s been a pleasure to see him step into a larger role with heavier responsibilities.

Of course, none of the details matter if the stars don’t play like stars though. Jokić and Murray have waited for this moment for a long time. The last year they were in the playoffs together, they formed an elite tandem on the way to the Western Conference Finals where they were defeated by the Lakers. This time, the Nuggets would not be denied. Jokić and Murray in particular have simply not allowed the Nuggets to fall short. They’re constantly working for easy shots yet always have the capability to make the difficult shots. It’s the perfect level of discipline and artistry, because it’s hard to be as disciplined as they are to look for a great shot every time. Occasionally, they will falter in that quest, but only ever for a possession or two before getting right back on track.

As a result, the two are putting up absurd numbers. The only other duo outside of Jokić and Murray to each average 25+ points per game in the playoffs this year was Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. Jokić is also averaging a near 30-point per game triple-double on top of that, which would be the second time in NBA playoff history after Russell Westbrook took every shot, pass, and rebound in the first round of the 2017 playoffs.

That’s not all though: according to Stathead, Jokić and Murray are currently the first duo in NBA playoff history to each average 25+ points, 5+ rebounds, and 5+ assists per game.

Jokić and Murray have shown the ability, willingness, and competitiveness to fill every role the Nuggets have needed during these playoffs. Need a bucket? Need a pass? Need a rebound? Hell, need a defensive stop? Denver’s stars have been up to the task. It’s cool that they’ve been able to accomplish such feats together too. The opportunity was ripped away from Murray due to injury, but lacking his co-star obviously affected Jokić too. The dynamic duo are back to their old ways once again, except they’re now operating with a newfound confidence and belief in themselves, each other, and the team as a whole. Playing with freedom to wheel and deal while honing their craft through thousands of hours of preparation has allowed Jokić and Murray to become the best versions of themselves at the same time. It’s a beautiful thing.

Apr 29, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) and center Nikola Jokic (15) on the bench in fourth quarter during game one of the 2023 NBA Playoffs at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets know the job isn’t finished just yet.

Whoever emerges from the Eastern Conference side of the bracket will be a legitimate threat to Denver’s hopes and dreams. If the Miami Heat ultimately prevail, it will have been one of the greatest runs by an eighth seed in NBA history. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and co. have already gone through the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks. Defeating the Celtics would only add to their legend. Conversely, if the Celtics become the first team to come back from 3-0 in NBA playoff history, they will have plenty of confidence but will have also displayed incredible resilience. That’s a trait the Nuggets have long held dear to them following multiple 3-1 comebacks in the bubble during the 2020 playoffs.

The Nuggets will have to face whoever appears in front of them. There’s no reason to believe they aren’t ready for the moment though. They have a star-studded duo capable of impacting the game in multiple ways, an elite supporting cast of versatile role players and defenders, and a coach helping to bind it all together. These Nuggets know exactly who they are after years and years of preparation, failure, sacrifice, and learning.

It’s Denver’s time, a team of destiny. They’re ready for the moment unlike any time they’ve ever had before.