MIAMI — The NBA postseason, the NBA Finals and the entire Denver Nuggets’ season, actually, experienced a twist on Friday: Nikola Jokic was carried by his teammates for a change.
For most of the season and the playoffs and through four games of the Finals, it was quite the opposite. You could even go back the last five or so years, that’s how broad Jokic’s shoulders were. The analytical stats and the eye test told no lies: The Nuggets were average — and that’s being kind — whenever Jokic wasn’t on the floor.
But Game 4 of the Finals will be the moment when the Nuggets repaid their two-time regular-season MVP (and soon-to-be NBA Finals MVP) if this 3-1 Nuggets lead holds up.
What an unexpected but welcome team effort: Aaron Gordon delivering his most important game in a Nuggets’ uniform; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope coming up with a pair of sterling defensive stops in the fourth; Jamal Murray showing poise and playmaking all game; Bruce Brown looming large in a decisive fourth quarter when it could’ve all crumbled.
But Denver gave Jokic, who carried a twisted ankle for three quarters, some valuable support — especially when he developed foul trouble. The Nuggets used five players in double-figure scoring, including a playoff career-high 27 points by Gordon, to outlast the Heat and now hold a Finals lead that only one team in history managed to blow, and that’s the 2016 Warriors against LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
“We’re focused, dialed in, and ready to do this thing,” said Murray.
Here are five takeaways from the Nuggets’ 108-95 win, including what worked right for Denver, the Heat’s dire straits, and what might be in store when this series shifts to Denver:
1. Joker sits down, Nuggets stand up
Sounds hard to believe now, but the Nuggets lost the fourth-quarter battle through the first two games of this series. In Game 1, they managed to escape; in Game 2, their lapse cost them.
But the last two games? All Denver, and especially the fourth quarter of Game 4, which was impressive given the circumstances — Jokic earned his fifth foul and was forced to the bench with the Nuggets up 10.
And what happened during the 5:13 that Denver played without him? They lost only a point on that lead. Imagine that: The Nuggets, on the road, without their foundational player, a team that imploded all season when Jokic wasn’t on the floor … held it together.
“They had us on our heels, and usually in the regular season when Nikola went out, things kind of went haywire,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “But I can say, not just tonight, but throughout these playoffs, the non-Nikola minutes have gone really well.”
Murray hit a 3-pointer. Gordon had a hoop. Jeff Green drilled a 3 from the corner. And then KCP, much maligned in this series, put the clamps on Miami’s two best players in successive possessions — denying Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in the post.
You know what’s really unfathomable for a team that relies so much on its franchise player? Jokic’s last points of the game came with 6:29 left in the third quarter. That underlines how well the Nuggets rallied around Jokic and at times rescued him.
2. Bruce Brown is gold
Last summer Bruce Brown drew very little interest on the free agent market. Hard to imagine that now, huh? Brown had to settle for a team friendly two-year mid-level-like deal from the Nuggets. Well, the money wasn’t right for Brown, but the opportunity in Denver was priceless.
He was the best player on the floor in the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals game. Imagine that. In a game with Jokic and Murray and Butler and Bam, the guy who was largely ignored last summer loomed largest.
“I really just wanted to be aggressive,” he said. “We knew they were going to trap Jamal and try to get the ball out of his hands, so the other four players were going to have to make plays, and then luckily it was just my time in the fourth quarter.”
He scored 10 points through three quarters. He scored 11 in the fourth. He simply came up big, time after time. His signature moment was a driving reverse layup that helped put the win on ice. But he also shot 3-for-5 from deep in the game and that was special to him.
“It just shows the work I’ve put in each offseason,” he said. “Remember, when I first came in the league, I couldn’t shoot. I wasn’t confident shooting the ball at all. I was a mutt guy. They left me wide open and let me shoot. So that took a toll on my confidence, but it put a chip on my shoulder. So I just got in the gym and worked, and now it’s showing on the biggest stage.”
3. Heat running out of options
Dwyane Wade isn’t walking through that door; actually, he was sitting in the front row. Nor is Alonzo Mourning or LeBron James or Chris Bosh or Tim Hardaway. Basically, the Heat must make do with the players on their bench, but they’re frantically searching for answers among them.
Their shooters are chilly, their defense is spotty, and so much of the burden is falling on Butler and Adebayo. The good news is that those two have delivered this series. The bad news is they’ve mostly gone at it alone.
“It’s always a make-or-miss game,” said Butler. “It’s a make-or-miss league. I missed some shots. That’s just part of it. But I don’t think missing shots for our team will ever make us win or lose a game. I think we had some lapses, and not getting back the cuts to offensive rebounds, those are the areas that we can control that we do have to fix. Whether I’m missing shots or somebody else is missing shots, those are the areas we have to be better.”
It was more of the same in Game 4, when the cry for help went unanswered. The starting backcourt of Gabe Vincent and Max Strus went 1-for-10 shooting with no 3s. Duncan Robinson’s numbers were decent but he didn’t make a play or shot of any significance, same for Caleb Martin.
It was the second 0-for game of the series for Strus, who’s shooting 16% in the Finals. Just nightmarish. Vincent was a no-show for the second straight game; he’s 3-for-16 combined in those. They were two of the unsung players who personified the Heat’s unexpected journey to the Finals. But maybe their moment has expired.
“I told the guys, feel whatever you want to feel tonight,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “It’s fine. You probably shouldn’t sleep tonight any amount of time. I don’t think anybody will.”
So it was a lost week for the Heat in Miami, dropping a pair at home and all but ruining any chance of making this series interesting or even winning it.
4. Murray manages the game
He surrendered much of the playmaking chores to Jokic long ago. That put Murray in the quirky role of hybrid point guard, where his biggest role is playing off a center and doing more shooting than passing, and how many point guards would find comfort in that?
Well, that role suits Murray just fine … but the Nuggets are thrilled to know he can switch to being a pure point whenever necessary, and that emergency handle was pulled Friday. With Jokic mired in foul trouble, Murray directed the offense flawlessly. He had 12 assists and, more vividly, zero turnovers in 43 minutes. You can’t find many pure point guards with games that efficient.
Jamal Murray finished with 12 assists and 0 turnovers.
That is the 3rd-most assists in a Finals game without a turnover since individual turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78.
1986 Robert Reid 17
1987 Magic Johnson 13
Fri. Jamal Murray 12 pic.twitter.com/kLLCcrjUjP
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 10, 2023
“Jamal regardless of what’s going on, he’s going to step up,” said Malone. “He’s going to find a way to impact the game. He did not get bored with making the right play. He just read the defense, made the right play, and trusted. I thought Jamal’s trusting his teammates tonight was just at such a high level.”
5. Joker overcomes ankle, fouls
There was a chill sent from Miami to Denver when Jokic turned his ankle in the first quarter. Suddenly, at least for a brief flash, it was every Nuggets fan’s nightmare — Jokic possibly being hobbled for the game, if not the rest of the series.
But much like Butler has weathered a creaky ankle of his own, Jokic not only remained in the game, but showed no visible signs of strain. That’s not to say there wasn’t pain.
“He’s tough,” said Malone, “and I could tell that he was fine. He just had to kind of keep it loose and don’t allow it to get stiff. But he’s resilient, and he’s tough.”
The good news for Denver is there’s two days before Game 5, more than enough time for therapy and rest. And for Miami? Two days to figure it out, or else.
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