How the Denver Nuggets Became Top Seed, Embarrassed Kevin Durant, and Made the Western Conference Finals

After finishing the Western Conference with the most wins of any other west-coast team, the Denver Nuggets have made the 2023 Conference Finals, beating the Phoenix Suns in playoffs. The upset comes after fans of the Suns, who were now armed with Kevin Durant, expected them to pop off in postseason appearances.

For the Nuggets, topping the WC is a franchise first while their latest Conference Finals appearance marks their second in just four years. They’re doing something right, so check out this recap of the Nuggets’ journey through the season as we highlight the people and moments that took them higher than ever before.

Reaching Top Seed in the Western Conference

Going into the Western Conference, odds for the Nuggets were already uncharacteristically favorable considering their last Finals appearance was three years ago. Early on, they became a favorite for the top seed and even better, for taking the Finals. Ironically, most odds had them behind star-powered franchises like the Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns.

As the Finals loom in June, the odds surrounding the event are starting to get hammered into shape by the playoffs. There’s still plenty of room for upset in what has been a hectic season and postseason for Western Conference teams, and bookmakers all over the world are stoking the action.

The NBA Semifinals and Finals are some of the most popular sports betting events in New Zealand, one of the countries furthest away from the US. So, it’s fair to say that there’s a lot riding on every postseason game, as the world watches to see who will take this year’s championship. Turns out, the Denvers just got one step closer.

When the buzzer sounded for their last games of the season, the GSW finished at 44-38 for a .537 winning percentage. The Suns beat them by one game at 45-37 – .549 PCT, while the Nuggets stormed ahead with 53-29 for a .646 PCT. They also beat the GSW at every show while the Suns went game for game against the Nuggets, who clinched top seed as the Suns settled at fourth.

The Nuggets’ Two-Time MVP

The Nuggets’ not-so-secret weapon is Nikola Jokić. The Joker was made MVP for the last two seasons, missing out to Joel Embiid this season. That’s fine, it was Embiid’s turn, and Jokić’s playoff performance has solidified his place as the Nuggets’ MVP and one of the NBA’s best athletes out there right now.

Nikola Jokic” (CC BY 2.0) by EDrost88

Jokić isn’t a new acquisition that turned the Nuggets’ fortunes, like Kevin Durant was supposed to be for the Suns. Instead, he was poached from the Serbian Mega Basket and has been with the Nuggets for almost a decade now. He’s an odd player to study, almost easy to underestimate despite (and maybe because of) his size.

So many pundits prioritize speed, smoothness, or jump altitude when looking for talent but the Joker has none of those. Yes, he’s big (read: strong) but he’s deceptively light on his feet, with fierce hand-eye coordination. Against Durant’s flashy jump shots, Jokić is more of a robot who carries weight effortlessly and hits his shots more often than not.

Jokić has worked since 2015 to cultivate a style that clearly works for him and the Nugs. In his first season, he was third for Rookie of the Year. Then came the All-Star appearances in 2018-19 before taking the Nuggets to the Conference Finals in 2019-20.

After that, he was awarded the MVP title both in 2020-21 and 2021-22. He’s only gotten better, breaking the 2,000 season points threshold last season. This season, he’s around 1,700 points in but what matters most is where those baskets are sunk and when.

Embarrassing the Suns at the Playoffs

As we said, the Suns went game for game with the Nugs during the season. That, and previous Nuggets bids for the Conference Finals, made Suns fans complacent. The Suns beat Denver 4-0 last time they met in the semifinals. Surely the same would happen this year, right? Wrong.

The Nuggets versus the Suns at this year’s playoffs will be talked about for quite a while. From the start, the Nugs knocked the air out of the Suns with a 125-107 finish. Point guard Jamal Murray was at his best here, sinking six 3-pointers and scoring 34 points in total against Durant’s 29, while Jokić scored 24 with 19 rebounds.

Game two was much closer – 97-87 – but still the Nuggets won. This was Jokić all the way, personally responsible for 39 of those points. Shooting guard Devin Booker helped close the gap with 34 points with Durant’s 24 but it just wasn’t enough. Games three and four saw the Suns beat the Nuggets, at first 121-114 and then with a 129-124 agonizingly close finish. At 2-2, Jokić has 146 points, Booker has 145, and the teams are very evenly matched stat-for-stat.

Game five sees the Joker get serious with a triple-double, part of 29 points scored with 13 rebounds and 12 assists. It marked his 10th triple-double in the playoffs, officially overtaking Wilt Chamberlain’s record.

That brings us to game six, 125-100, a brutal loss for the Suns about which Durant has since said “it was embarrassing.” Jokić comes out with another triple-double, 32 points with Murray’s 26 points, most within a particularly vicious first half. As Jokić put it: “We were the aggressors the whole game.” Durant added that it was like the Nugs “got us in the mouth and we couldn’t recover”.

When the buzzer sounded, the Denver Nuggets had punched their ticket to the Conference Finals. Whatever happens now, this season will go down in franchise history as one of their best.

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