NBA: Denver Nuggets reach their first finals after swamping The Lakers

Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope dashes off as Los Angeles Lakers forward Jarred Vanderbilt (2) defends during the second half of game 1 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals series, Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Denver.

ENTERING this week it appeared that the National Basketball Association (NBA) was going to have its first-ever sweep in both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, in the same year, with both series at 3-0 — the Denver Nuggets leading the Los Angeles Lakers in the West and the Boston Celtics trailing the Miami Heat in the East.

After an enthralling set of conference semi-final series, all of which went to at least game six (there was one 7-game series), the conference finals were as lopsided as they come. Given the fact that there have been 110 teams to go down 3-0 in an NBA play-offs series since 1984, and none of them came back to win the series, history was not on the side of the Lakers and Celtics.

Of the 110 teams to take a 3-0 lead 70 of them have gone on to sweep the series and therefore the likelihood of a double sweep this year was highly possible. The series loser has forced a game five on 31 occasions, a game six just seven times, and only three teams to fall into a 3-0 series hole have come back to force a game seven (but they have never won) — the most recent being the Portland Trail Blazers losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2003 Western Conference first round.

The Nuggets played game four on Monday (May 22) in Los Angeles and by half-time it appeared LeBron James was going to single-handedly stave off elimination for the Lakers with a legendary performance. He had 31 points on 11-of-13 shooting in the first 24 minutes as the Lakers carried a 73-58 lead into the break. But in the second half LeBron scored only nine points and the Nuggets brought the game they had shown over the first three games of the series. They outscored the Lakers 36-16 in the third quarter, to erase the big half-time deficit, and held on to win 113-111 to complete the sweep.

Miami Heat players sit on the bench at the end of game 4 during the NBA basketball play-offs Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics, Tuesday, May 23 2023, in Miami. (Photos: AP)

The Nuggets, after being first-round play-off victims of the Golden State Warriors in five games last season, added 29-year-old Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and 26-year-old free agent Bruce Brown to bolster their roster around Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr, and this has paid dividends. Not only have their stars raised their games but the contributions across the roster have resulted in them achieving the best record in the West, losing just three of their 15 play-off games and catapulting them into the first-ever NBA finals appearance for the franchise.

Adding Caldwell-Pope and Brown last summer changed the entire dynamic of the team, and particularly for the conference finals, as former Laker Caldwell-Pope knocked down 45 per cent of his threes in the series while Brown came off the bench as an aggressive scorer and defender in every game.

It’s no big surprise that Denver are in the finals but in the East the eighth-seeded Heat dominated the number two Celtics in a manner that no one could have predicted. After battling out two games against the Philadelphia 76ers to stave off elimination in the previous round the Celtics were again against the ropes on Tuesday (May 23) in Miami for game four.

The Heat led by as many as nine points in the opening quarter and kept the lead for the majority of the first half. They were up by nine again when Max Strus connected on a three-pointer early in the third quarter, but an 18-0 run took Boston from nine down to nine up in three minutes, which marked a huge turnaround in the game. The Celtics were six of seven from the floor during the run and four of four from three-point range.

Miami got within four late in the third, only to see another spurt by the Celtics with seven unanswered points in 40 seconds to widen the lead and extend to a 116-99 game four win. Miami had absolutely bullied Boston up to Monday’s game, and the difference was simple. In the first three games of the series Boston struggled to connect on three-point shots, making just 29.2 per cent from behind the arc and a mere 10.3 per game. But they found their shooting stroke in game four, hitting 18 of 45 attempts from three (40 per cent) compared to Miami’s eight for 32.

The Celtics were among the NBA’s best three-point shooting teams this season, averaging 16 made threes per game in the regular season, second only to the Warriors (16.6). Their three-point shooting percentage was 37.7 per cent, sixth in the NBA, and perimeter shooting carried them through the first two rounds of the play-offs. They shot 40.6 per cent from deep against the Atlanta Hawks in round one and 38.6 per cent against Philadelphia, which makes their struggles in the first three games against Miami all the more bizarre.

The other deciding factor in game 4 was Boston’s defence. After allowing 120.7 points per game in the first three games of the series the Celtics — a top five regular-season defence by opponent points per game — limited the Heat to 99 points. It was just the second time this postseason that Miami was held under 100 points.

Boston’s game four win provided them with a slim chance to write a miraculous chapter in NBA history as, following Tuesday night, they were 6-0 when facing elimination against Eastern Conference competition over the last two postseasons. The Celtics have been the better team by far all season but the Heat have proven that their postseason wins over the Bucks and Knicks were not flukes, plus redemption was on the cards since last year’s defeat in these Eastern Conference Finals at the hands of the Celtics had not been forgotten.

The NBA Finals are slated to begin on the first day of June and, while the gloves came off in the East, Denver has been in the wings patiently waiting for next up.

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Denver Nuggets1.48

Miami Heat4.60

Boston Celtics5.60

*Note: Odds are subject to change.

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