LOS ANGELES -- History will say it was a sweep, but don't let that fool you into thinking this was easy for the Denver Nuggets. Not for one second.
Denver's roster is littered with players who make the game look way too simple. Nikola Jokic dominates while seemingly never breaking a sweat or leaving the floor. Jamal Murray effortlessly swishes silky smooth jumpers that would take every ounce of our strength to even get to the hoop. Aaron Gordon bounces like a Pogo stick and elevates like an astronaut in Zero G.
But, as Sidney Deane once said, it is hard g--d--- work being this good.
The Nuggets won Monday's Game 4 over the Los Angeles Lakers, 113-111, to complete a Western Conference finals sweep and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. It was also the first-ever playoff sweep -- period -- for the Nuggets, and it ended with the same grit and resilience that was required for each of their four wins of the series.
Blown leads. Furious comebacks. Near-chokes followed by triumphant redemption. This series was supersaturated with enough twists and turns to fill a full seven-game marathon, only compressed into four games.
"The Lakers have no quit at all," Gordon said after the Game 4 win. "We knew we were gonna have to play 48 minutes of focused basketball. We've been resilient all year long. We haven't let go to rope, quit, all year long. So it's standard for us, and that's just that's just how we play. That's what it is for us."
Anyone questioning the difficulty of the matchup need look no further than LeBron James, who turned back the clock in a vintage 31-point first half which saw Denver grow increasingly frustrated with the referees. Mentally, it would have been easy to say this wasn't their night and look forward to a closeout Game 5 at home.
Even when the Nuggets roared back and erased the deficit in the third quarter to take the lead, the Lakers still refused to give in, forcing Denver to stop James one last time in the final seconds to earn their trip to the Finals.
The @nuggets advance to the #NBAFinals presented by YouTube TV!— NBA (@NBA) May 23, 2023
LAL: 111 pic.twitter.com/sJk3xAHQ95
"For that game to go down to the wire and for the ball to be in LeBron James' hands, those seconds were an eternity," Denver coach Michael Malone said after the win. "When the buzzer went off, it was almost surreal for a second."
The Nuggets have taken their lumps in prior postseason losses, and they took some more in this series, but have come out better for it. The lessons they learned and experience they gained will serve them well against whichever team comes out of the East -- likely the Miami Heat, barring an historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit by the Boston Celtics.
One of the questions about the Nuggets, and why so many took a "believe it when I see it" approach about them entering the playoffs, is that they don't look like a tough team. It's incredibly flawed logic, akin to the scouts in Moneyball who refused to draft a player because his "ugly girlfriend" was a surefire sign of a lack of confidence.
Jokic doesn't look the part of a tough guy -- he doesn't even rank in the top-two most intimidating men in his family. Murray's status was still unclear coming off surgery. Michael Porter Jr. has always had a "soft" tag due to his penchant for floating around the perimeter and occasionally laissez-faire defensive approach.
After dispatching the Lakers in four intense, hard-fought games, however, there is no longer a doubt about Denver's grit or makeup. They're going to need every ounce of that toughness in the Finals -- whether against a Miami team that has steamrolled its opponents seemingly though sheer intimidation, or a Celtics group that will have just finished an unprecedented comeback.
"The Heat are playing at an unbelievably high level," Malone said on Monday night. "Jimmy Butler, what he's been doing ... is just historical in nature. And Erik Spoelstra, if they're able to win this series, and obviously that series is not over yet, but obviously Spo is one of the best coaches in the league, who I have a tremendous amount of respect for as a coach, but also just as a friend.
"Whoever we wind up playing, we'll prepare like we have all Playoffs. We'll get our guys ready. It's also about us doing us and being the best version of ourselves going into the NBA Finals."