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Eighty-two is a lot of basketball games (well, 102 if you include the postseason, which, if you’re reading this, you obviously do). That’s how many contests it took for the 2022–’23 Denver Nuggets to win the title—the franchise’s first-ever in its 47-year stint in the NBA.
So we’d forgive you for missing a couple matches throughout the season. (A bunch of the regular season games were blacked-out for local viewers anyway.) Let us help catch you up to speed. Below, the 10 most important games of the Nuggets’ championship run.
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1. Nov. 22, 2022: Nuggets @ Thunder, 131-126 OT
The rebuilding Thunder looked to upset the Nuggets early in the season—and it almost happened. Denver entered the contest without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. and still jumped out to an early 20-point lead. Still, the Nuggets let Oklahoma City rally back—a theme for the Nuggets this season—and even jump ahead in the third quarter. The Thunder led by as many as 15 with eight minutes left in the game. Without Murray or MPJ, the Nuggets looked to Bruce Brown.
Filling in for Murray, Brown earned one of his few starts of the season and registered his first career triple double with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists. Behind his deft play, the Nuggets clawed back into the game (also helpful: 39 points from Nikola Jokić, 31 points from Aaron Gordon, and 19 bench points from Vlatko Čančar), pushing it to overtime. In the extra period, the Nuggets squeaked out the win, proving their resilience early in the season.
2. Dec. 8, 2022: Nuggets @ Trail Blazers, 121-120
Portland is always tough on Denver, especially when the Nuggets are on the road, and so thus began what would feel all too familiar for Nuggets Nation.
At this point, the Blazers hadn’t yet committed to
tanking rebuilding and were above .500. Meanwhile, the Nuggets were an average 15–10. Portland led the contest early, but Denver kept it close. There were 20 lead changes and seven ties, but a tight one isn’t what you want when Damian Lillard—one of the all-time clutch shooters in the NBA—is on the other side. The Nuggets seized the lead with two minutes left in the game after Nikola Jokić found Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a three-pointer. But then it was officially “Dame Time,” and Lillard hit a signature three from way downtown to put Portland ahead 115-114.
When Aaron Gordon sunk a tough one at the rim, giving Denver a 118-117 lead with 17 seconds left in the game, every Nuggets fan had to be thinking, There’s too much time left in the game. They were right. Lillard drained another long trey, which put Portland ahead 120-118 with eight seconds left.
Everybody on the floor—or tuning in from home—knew the ball would go to Jokić on the Nuggets’ ensuing possession. It did—but instead of floating a shot for the tie, the big man passed to Jamal Murray, who called game with a three-pointer as time expired. It was a dramatic win against a tough opponent, but more importantly, it showed Nuggets faithful that Murray was back.
3. Dec. 20, 2022: Grizzlies @ Nuggets, 105-91
The first-place Memphis Grizzlies visited the second-place Denver Nuggets on a nationally televised broadcast during Christmastime, which would become an instant classic.
It didn’t look good for the Nuggets, who had to face a top-five team without Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. In fact, earlier in the day, diabolical star Ja Morant had proclaimed, “I’m fine in the West”—a dig at Denver. But as would become the norm for Denver this year, different guys filled in when needed (Christian Braun earned his first start of the year). Also notable: Nikola Jokić proved he doesn’t need to be a top scorer to be dominant. In this contest, he logged a ho-hum triple double—13 points, 13 rebounds, and 13 assists—but ran the offense to perfection (and logged perhaps his finest assist of the season: a no-look pass between his legs to a streaking Bruce Brown for a two-handed dunk). Memphis was behind by at least nine throughout most of the contest and lost by double-digits.
4. Dec. 25, 2022: Suns @ Nuggets, 128-125 OT
Nationally televised Christmas Day games hold a certain significance in basketball. Unfortunately for Nuggets fans, Denver is historically abysmal in them. The Nuggets entered this game 1–6 all-time in Christmas Day contests, with their last win in 1994 against the Seattle SuperSonics.
In this holiday match, Denver and Phoenix traded the lead often. It was close at the end of regulation when Jamal Murray surprised everyone with a dunk to tie the game 113-113 with 11 seconds left. (He then missed the potential game-winner, which sent the match into overtime.)
Landry Shamet, playing in place of the injured superstar Devin Booker, scored a mind-numbing 31 points this game, including five with a pretty trey in bonus basketball. Also in OT: He missed a three, which was rebounded by Aaron Gordon, who baptized the young shooting guard with a candidate for dunk of the year. The slam, which was originally called a charge but overturned on review, gave Denver a four-point lead, which it wouldn’t relinquish.
Other Christmas presents for Denver fans: Nikola Jokić’s 41-point, 15-rebound, 15-assist triple double—and his post-game presser. When asked about Gordon’s spectacular dunk, Jokić deadpanned, “I was open.”
5. Jan. 1, 2023: Celtics @ Nuggets, 123-111
A New Year’s Day clash of the titans pitted the visiting Boston Celtics—the best squad in the NBA—against the Western Conference–leading Denver Nuggets. But, perhaps surprisingly for Nuggets Nation, Denver easily won—and the first chatter of a possible championship began trickling through the Mile High City.
At this point in the season, offensive savant Nikola Jokić was putting up regular triple doubles, and he had another one in this game with 30 points, 12 rebounds, and 12 assists. Nuggets fans may also remember this game as the one with the 35-minute delay after a Robert “Timelord” Williams dunk in the fourth quarter.
6. Jan. 13, 2023: Nuggets @ Clippers, 115-103
The Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets follow one parallel path: Neither has been to an NBA Finals (well, except for now). Still, the media constantly regale the former as contenders, which meant this game was bound for a national telecast.
Unfortunately for Denver, Nikola Jokić was out of action—and Kawhi “Mr. Load Management” Leonard was going to suit up. But the team showed its resilience in a hard-fought win—that featured 20 lead changes. Jamal Murray tallied 24 points Michael Porter Jr. added 22. The most important takeaway: This team could win without Joker. They are a true team, the closest comparison to the 2013 San Antonio Spurs, which created the blueprint for defeating super teams.
7. Jan. 20, 2023: Pacers @ Nuggets, 134-111
Why this game? We don’t blame you. To truly understand the importance of this match, you need to truly understand the importance of Nikola Jokić.
The Nuggets are one of the best teams in the league every year with their big man. Without him? Not so hot. This season Denver was a paltry 5–8 without Joker. For context, the Philadelphia 76ers were 11–5 without their Most Valuable Player candidate, Joel Embiid, and the Milwaukee Bucks were 11–8 without theirs, Giannis Antetokounmpo. If only there was some award for being the most valuable player to one’s team…
Back to the game at hand: The Indiana Pacers were an average team, but Denver had won eight straight—the last one without Jokić. In this contest, they did it again, logging 38 assists as a team—their most under head coach Michael Malone. Jamal Murray channeled the Serbian superstar, notching his first career triple double with 17 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds. It was a complete win, and the Nuggets played the sort of selfless basketball that came to define them during their playoffs run.
8. March 25, 2023: Bucks @ Nuggets, 129-106
Late in the season, Milwaukee came to Denver with the best record in the NBA, propelled by an impressive streak where it didn’t lose between January 23 and March 1—16 games in a row. Led by their own two-time Most Valuable Player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks took a three-point lead into halftime: 66-63. Then it got good.
Denver clamped down on D, holding the best team in the NBA to just 40 points in the second half. Meanwhile, the Nuggets scored a whopping 66 points of their own. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić proved they are perhaps the most formidable duo in the NBA, combining for 57 points in what would become a relatively easy win against one of the premier teams in the league.
9. May 1, 2023: Suns @ Nuggets, Game 2 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals, 97-87
The Nuggets met the Suns in the Western Conference Semi-Finals in 2021—and were swept four games to none. Sure, the Nuggets were without Jamal Murray, who’d suffered an ACL tear, but it was an embarrassment nonetheless. This time, though, Denver had its point guard (and when it does, mind you, the team is 21–5 against Phoenix all-time, including the playoffs).
The game felt like a 1990s heater: tough defense, slow half-court offense, and a ton of mid-range jumpers. Neither side could really get going, and as Nuggets Nation knows: When the shots aren’t dropping for Denver, the team doesn’t often win (which made the game five win in the Finals all the more special, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves). But this team is different—they have grit and they grinded out a win. Jokić was brilliant with 39 points and 16 rebounds, but it was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who made a trio of three-pointers in the fourth quarter to put the Suns away.
10. May 22, 2023: Nuggets @ Lakers, Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, 113-111
The national media did not give the Nuggets a chance in this series. They filled the airwaves with talk about LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They brought up the Nuggets’ putrid playoffs history against the Lakers (falling short five times) and the fact that they were handily dispatched by the Lakers just a few seasons ago. Even after Denver won game one, the media still backed Los Angeles.
It didn’t matter. The Lakers couldn’t contain the Nuggets and Jokić had his way in the paint all series (also outside the paint, behind the arc). In this match, Denver trailed most of the the game and was down by 15 at the half. But a stellar third quarter erased that deficit quickly; the Nuggets led by five going into the fourth quarter. Jokić was masterful again, netting a 30-point triple double and hitting two ridiculous three-pointers in the process. With the game tied at 111, he barreled into the paint for a layup over Davis and the lead. Denver and Los Angeles traded a couple of misses, leaving the Lakers with one more shot to tie (or win) with four seconds remaining. Everyone in the building—or watching at home—knew the play was going to James. It was fitting, then, that Denver defended it with the sort of team-first panache it had displayed all season: Aaron Gordon defended the path to the basket, and Jamal Murray doubled. James couldn’t get a shot off. It was the Nuggets’ first-ever sweep in the playoffs as they punched their ticket to the NBA Finals.