DENVER – Nikola Jokić makes a lot more sense when contextualized as a big, blue boxer than as a graceful, skilled basketball player – he applies force to every possession and makes sure to throw his weight around, and so should you.
It would be easy to believe that Jokić played a passive game, as he only took a handful of shots in the first three quarters, but he, like his teammates, performed with a concentration and an iron approach that no one had seen in these playoffs. has been able to match. .
Jokić’s Finals debut was a hit with another triple-double, 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds, another step toward ultimate validation.
The Denver Nuggets dealt with the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals with a 104-93 win that didn’t feel as close as the spread indicated, with the Nuggets showing very little rust or jitters on the biggest stages.
Though the Heat are an eighth seed and the Nuggets are first in the West since December, they’ve shared a few traits in recent weeks. Until Thursday, neither team was trailing in a playoff series, evidenced by both taking control of each series in the opener.
The Heat happened to be handling their business on the road against Milwaukee, New York and Boston – a fact the Nuggets and Jokic knew full well they were entering. Jokić was aware that he decided not to fight Public Enemy No. – he simply empowered his teammates through his own aggression.
It seemed to unbalance the Heat in the first move of this chess match, with Jokić being a wayward facilitator and even a decoy, while Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon cooked early. Gordon may be overwhelmed as a top option in Orlando, but he fits in perfectly here, almost an afterthought in Denver’s high-powered plan. Miami took a calculated risk in challenging Gordon to beat them, giving up easy substitutions to the likes of Max Strus and Gabe Vincent, believing the Nuggets wouldn’t exploit it consistently.
They were wrong. Big mistake.
Jokić dragged Bam Adebayo to the perimeter and ceded space on the low block to Gordon, who punished the smaller guards. It would have been very easy, almost tempting for Jokić to strike an aggressive tone, especially given the stakes.
The entire basketball world is watching, focusing only on these two clubs – diehards and casuals alike. Jokić could very well have dressed Adebayo in a clown suit, as he did Anthony Davis in the last round, and he wouldn’t have been wrong to do so.
But the game called for something different, and it did.
“To be honest, I couldn’t wait to get started just because it felt abnormal when the game started,” said Jokic. “Everything else didn’t feel — felt abnormal, and the whole media day was yesterday or the day before — I think people are making something bigger than it is.”
He took the fewest shot attempts of any Nuggets starter to three-quarters (five) as Adebayo lifted 18 more shots to that mark. Adebayo was Miami’s lone offense, while Jokić was still the center point for everything to run through.
Gordon set the tone early with 12 runs in the first inning and Murray did some edge chin-ups before halftime to score 18.
“It’s hard to guard everyone, instead of just one or two guys,” said Murray, who was again great with 26 points, 10 assists and 6 rebounds. “We make sure you are on the defensive for the entire game. I think tonight was just a good example of it could be a night for anyone and everyone, maybe not for you. That’s just Nuggets basketball.”
Of course, it helped that Miami’s snipers went cold – with Strus going 0-for-10, nine misses from 3-point range. Caleb Martin also failed to show, going just 1-of-7 after his breakthrough against the Celtics.
Jimmy Butler didn’t exert his power after the first few minutes, something you’d think will change for Game 2 on Sunday.
Whether it was the height or some other factor, the moans you heard came from Boston and Milwaukee wondering how this Miami team suddenly decided it couldn’t shoot straight, going just 26% of 3 in the first three quarters.
Or maybe it was the Nuggets’ defense that handled the Finals opener with the right pressure.
“You can’t be number 1 with just a foul. That’s hard to do,” Murray said. “Jokić has great hands there. [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] is aggressive. Bruce [Brown] is one of the best defenders. [Gordon] is one of the best defenders.”
The Nuggets led by 17 and repeatedly threatened to run and hide for the rest of the game – keeping a close eye on the Heat when it looked like they wanted to make things interesting.
‘I like that about Nikola. I learned a long time ago that the defense tells you what to do, and Nikola never forces it,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “If they want to give him that kind of attention, he had 10 assists at halftime, I believe. Well, he’s just going to break you up. Now it’s up to the other guys to step in and take pictures.”
There’s an almost overarching attempt to sanctify Jokić, to say he doesn’t care about scoring or individual accolades in his pursuit of winning. And it may be true, but it’s missing a huge element in his game: how much he likes to dominate.
Physically, he leans on you like a heavyweight, kno
wing that over the course of 12 rounds (or seven games) he’ll outlast you because he’s going to tire you out. With the bumps, screens and overall physicality, it’s a mantra that’s filtered down to the rest of the Nuggets.
“He’s a force down there, and he’s just more athletic than people believe him to be, and he just has a ridiculous engine,” Gordon said. “He has an engine that just won’t stop. It’s hard to guard a man like that.’
They’re not the most physical bunch, but they’re relentless, and that screams it out Jokić.
“I think it was the fourth quarter, we got into the bonus early,” Malone said. “I tried to post him, give him the ball, try to screen Bam so he could catch the ball in a goal-scoring area and let Nikola do what he does.”
Twelve of Jokić’s 27 points came in the fourth, as the Heat staged a modest comeback. The Heat will walk away knowing they can play much better, gain a foothold in this series – but the Nuggets and Jokic will still lean on them and pound away until there’s not much left in those punches.