September 21, 2023

Nuggets’ 1-2 punch from Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray gives them a 2-1 series lead

Michael Malone admitted as much after Game 2, and he spoke again ahead of the tip-off Wednesday night, about his Denver Nuggets’ fourth-quarter struggle against the Miami Heat during these NBA Finals. As the final frame of Game 3 began at Kaseya Center, visiting Denver held a 14-point lead behind a leading offense from Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray. This time, Malone left Jokic on the floor in place of the bench unit Murray played with Aaron Gordon, plus the Nuggets trio of standard reserves: versatile Bruce Brown, rookie Christian Braun and veteran Jeff Green.

Jokić was simply sensational. Denver had no choice but to leave him on the ground with a chance to regain home field-field advantage in favor of the Nuggets. The two-time MVP became the first player in NBA history to record more than 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a Finals appearance, a triumph at the center of Denver’s 109-94 victory that extended a 2-1 lead in the series retook the heat. Jokić’s grand total: 32 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists. At this pace, is there a better word than ‘masterpiece’ to describe the Serb’s performance at this championship?

Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets shoots over Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat during the second quarter in Game Three of the 2023 NBA Finals at Kaseya Center on June 7, 2023 in Miami, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photo, User agrees to the terms of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
Nikola Jokić of the Denver Nuggets shoots over Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat during the second quarter of Game 3 of the 2023 NBA Finals at Kaseya Center on June 7, 2023 in Miami. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

The bookends on the Denver offense spent much of the evening working on their perfected two-man play, Jokić catching feeds from Murray in the paint, the confident guard pulling to midrange finishes and step-back triples. Murray would finish with his own 30-point triple-double: a game-high 34 points, plus 10 rebounds and 10 assists. However, the Nuggets missed a consistent third contributor to their offense all series. Gordon’s domestic dominance from the start of Game 1 has not been followed. Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were ineffective weapons in the perimeter. And while Murray opened the fourth quarter with a jumper and Jokić contributed 4 early points, it was Braun who fired off the Denver bench and helped the Nuggets counter another double-digit comeback in Miami.

Braun made a big impact – 15 points – in his 19 minutes. Against Miami’s zone defense with Duncan Robinson on the field, Braun fired through a back door down the baseline on several of Murray’s drives during this game. The 22-year-old always plays curled up, ready to burst into a powerful burst, whether he’s on the glass or attacking a closeout or releasing a pass for a transition finish. His drive and saucer for Jokić’s short jumper early in the fourth pushed Denver’s lead back to 16. Braun then cut the baseline and finished through Gabe Vincent’s contact for an en-1 finish that cut the lead to 19. He charged straight on Jimmy off Butler into the open floor on the next possession and scored again.

Butler returned to his postseason brilliance throughout much of the evening, leading Miami with a team-high 28 points. Adebayo was right behind him with 22 points and 17 rebounds, and thundered a nasty put-back slam on Jokić in the second quarter. But for the barrage of 3-pointers the supporting cast of Heat contributed in Game 2, only Caleb Martin scored in double digits outside of Miami’s key players. Robinson hit a pair of late triples, enough to make Malone shake his head and call a timeout with just over a minute left. However, Denver managed to keep the Heat at bay.

The complete final frame the Nuggets dodged against this sloppy opponent, the quarter that saw the Nuggets fumble their first home game of the entire postseason in Game 2, was nothing but a low bar to take as this matchup moved to South Florida shifted. Denver has won four consecutive games on the road this postseason. Miami has now lost three straight games on the home floor.

For how knotted this final felt a few days ago, Denver appeared to have found enough momentum to roll through perhaps a fourth fight on Friday, before the Nuggets were able to wrap up their first championship in franchise history back at Ball Arena in Game 5. Or will this The Miami team, which has not once said it will die in these playoffs, live to tell another comeback story?

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