Resting a hand on his face, Nikola Jokic shrugged after quick ponderance of the significance in producing a line never before seen in NBA Finals history.
“If we lose, nobody’s going to even mention [it],” he said. “To be honest, I don’t care. It’s just a stat.”
However the back-to-back Kia MVP chooses to view it, there’s no denying Jokic earned designation Wednesday as the first player in league annals to tally at least 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in the NBA Finals in leading the Denver Nuggets to a 2-1 series lead over the Miami Heat by virtue of a 109-94 win at Kaseya Center.
Teammate Jamal Murray added more text to the duo’s entry into league lore with a game-high 34 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds, as he and Jokic became the first pair of teammates to log 30-point triple-doubles in the same game.
“It’s not really Xs and Os,” Murray said. “It’s just reading the game and trusting that the other is going to make the right play. I think it’s just a feel and a trust that we’re going to figure it out, and it’s a lot of unselfishness.”
It’s also the sheer will to win, especially coming off Denver’s Game 2 loss at Ball Arena. Eighteen games in these playoffs have already proven that if you beat Jokic there’s hell to pay. Coming off losses this postseason, the Nuggets center averages 35.5 points, 13.8 rebounds and 11.3 assists per game on 52% from the field and 47.1% from 3-point range.
So, is anyone really surprised that Jokic now ranks as just the second player in NBA history behind Hall of Famer Jason Kidd (2006-07) to average a triple-double in the postseason while playing in 10-plus contests? Jokic’s Game 3 performance marked his 10th triple-double of this postseason, his second in this series and 16th of his career.
Jokic’s three 30-20-10 playoff showings also register as the most in NBA history, as the Nuggets big man became the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 2004 to rack up 20 points and 20 rebounds in an NBA Finals game.
So, naturally, Jokic and Murray occupy the top two spots in the 2023 Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder, while a new candidate enters the chat in Nuggets rookie guard Christian Braun. He scored 15 points off the bench on 7-for-8 shooting with four rebounds and a steal over 19 minutes.
“It’s a great duo,” Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Jokic and Murray. “Their games really complement each other. You have one guy that really can score in a lot of different ways, [and] another guy who is setting great screens or handoffs, and if the ball gets back to him, he can get a bunch of people involved. You have to expect there to be elite talent in the Finals. Both those guys are elite-level talent.”
And now, the Top 5 in our 2023 Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder after Game 2:
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last ranking: No. 1
NBA Finals stats: 33.3 points, 14.0 rebounds, 9.3 assists
Jokic posted a series-high 41 points in the team’s Game 2 loss, prompting talk that turning Jokic into a scorer might be the way to go for Miami the rest of the series. After all, Denver is 0-3 this postseason when Jokic scores 40 points or more. But in Game 3, Jokic imposed his all-around game on the Heat, and nearly logged a triple-double in the opening half (14 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists) as Denver outscored Miami 30-20 in the paint. Jokic would finish with 32 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists in addition to blocking two shots as the Nuggets dominated the paint-scoring battle 60-34. “I’ve always felt that Nikola and Jamal Murray are one of the most elite and lethal two-man combos in the NBA, and we’ve seen that growing for eight years now,” Malone said. “I think it was on full display once again tonight.”
2. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Last ranking: No. 5
NBA Finals stats: 26.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 10.0 assists
The embodiment of Denver’s resilience, Murray scored a game-high 34 points, piling up more points (20) and field goals (eight) in the first half of Game 3 than he posted in all of Game 2 in helping the Nuggets establish a forceful start on the road. The point guard attacked early, scoring eight of Denver’s first 10 points in Game 3, only to turn up his star power an extra notch in the second half with 14 points, eight rebounds and six assists. The Nuggets are 7-2 all-time when Murray dishes nine assists or more in the postseason, and 9-1 when he knocks down three-plus 3-pointers in the 2023 playoffs. Defensively, Murray limited Heat shooters to 1-for-6 from the field in the third quarter and 0-for-4 from deep as the primary defender while scoring or assisting on 11 points in the frame.
3. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Last ranking: No. 4
NBA Finals stats: 20.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.7 assists
We haven’t yet seen a Butler signature showing in this series, but Game 3 represented the closest the superstar has come so far. Butler racked up 14 points in the first half, but connected on just 6 of 16 from the field in an aggressive, hard-charging start. That only improved in the second half as the 33-year-old finished with 14 points (on 5-for-8 shooting) with four assists as Denver built a 19-point lead in the third quarter. Butler missed his two attempts in the fourth quarter, as Miami shot a combined 8-for-26 in its bid to overcome a 21-point Nuggets advantage. Butler entered Game 3 averaging just 17 points while shooting 39.4% overall. So, despite the defeat, Butler pieced together arguably his best performance of this series.
4. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Last ranking: No. 3
NBA Finals stats: 23.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists
He fueled a personal 5-0 run that included three rebounds and a block over a span of 73 seconds in the second quarter and was strong overall in the first half (13 points, 10 rebounds) of Game 3. The two-time All-Star now has four 20-point career games in the Finals to move past Chris Bosh for fourth-most in franchise history (trailing only Dwayne Wade’s 19, LeBron James’ 17 and Butler’s seven such games). Adebayo attributed his assertiveness in Game 3 to positioning. “Two feet in the paint,” he said. “Shoot the shots I know I can make, stay aggressive. If I get two feet in the paint, I’m expected to shoot a layup or a floater, and I’m expected to make it, too.” However, the Heat were just 17-for-46 in the paint in Game 3 and were outscored in that area 60-34 by the Nuggets.
5. Christian Braun, Denver Nuggets
Last ranking: Not ranked
NBA Finals stats: 7.0 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists
He’s played a grand total of 43 minutes over his last five games, but Braun proved invaluable off the bench in Game 3 with 15 points (on 7-of-8 shooting), four rebounds, an assist and a steal. The 15 points matches the rookie’s total from his previous seven appearances combined dating back to the Western Conference semifinals. “I could just feel the confidence kind of oozing out of him, the physical, aggressive drives, making plays for our guys against their zone,” Malone said of Braun. “It was really fun to watch a young man step up like the way Christian did tonight.” The 21-year-old did it when the stakes were highest, too: the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals game.
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