MIAMI — The Denver Nuggets reasserted their dominance in this NBA Finals Wednesday, routing the Miami Heat, 109-94, feeding off of the historic outings from their two stars, feats of basketball brilliance that set their team’s championship course back on track.
At least for now.
That’s the truth behind the utter unpredictability of this series, and the sheer importance of Denver rolling into Miami and finding a big-time win. The best way to thwart the momentum of a Miami Heat team whose run has been nothing short of magic rests in giving them as little daylight as possible.
“Yeah, it’s a great duo. Their games really complement each other,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. “You have one guy that really can score in a lot of different ways. 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 … Both those guys are elite-level talent.”
There were glimpses of emerging all-time greatness for Jokic, and the kind of superstardom Murray will lay claim to if he and his team find a way to win two more games.
Jokic secured the first 30-20-10 game in NBA Finals history with an utterly absurd line of 32 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists, and, for good measure, two blocks. He also became the first player in NBA history to notch 10 triple-doubles in a single postseason run. Jokic now has three of the five postseason 30-20-10 games in NBA history, and the other two belong to Wilt and Kareem.
Murray delivered a masterpiece of his own. He scored 20 points in the first half, helping push Denver to another lead that proved insurmountable despite a late Heat rally.
He finished with his own triple-double, this one 34-10-10. That means he and Jokic are the first teammates in the game’s history to record 30-point triple-doubles on the same night.
That’s ever, as in any game at any point. And this is the NBA Finals.
“That’s what champions do. That’s what warriors do,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “Forget the stats for a second. I felt Jamal’s presence, his energy, and he was here in the moment, and for him and Nikola to do what they did tonight in a game that we needed to take, regain home-court advantage of the series was special to watch.”
And yet all of that greatness will add up to exactly zilch if Miami does somehow find a way to turn this series on its head — the way it did the entire Eastern Conference — and come back and win this thing.
That is still not impossible. This Heat team confounds expectations, while oozing a surreal swagger for an 8-seed.
Miami shot just 31.4% on threes in the loss — though it was at a higher clip than Denver. They were brutally outrebounded, 58-33. They got dominated in the points-in-the-paint, too, by a margin of 60-34.
Jimmy Butler was 11 of 24 for 28 points — fine, but it was not the kind of Jimmy-Buckets-bends-the-playoffs-to-his-will performance we’ve come to expect, but have yet to see in this Finals.
All of that is correctable. A win from Miami on Friday, and the momentum can shift again for a team that has won seven road games so far this season.
Butler spoke about Miami being out rebounded by 25. “It won’t happen again,” he said. “It starts with myself. I have to lock in on the defensive end. I have to go up and get loose balls. I think if I start playing and doing that, then everybody else has to follow suit.”
Miami is tough, unpredictable, and hard to defeat, mentally and otherwise. Which is why Denver has to win these kinds of games — on the road, with its stars stepping up to the requisite level of greatness to earn a championship.
“He just makes the game look easy throughout the game,” said Murray in going on to explain all of the attributes that makes Jokic so unique. ” … his touch, his creativity, his no-look passes, his IQ. I could go down the line. He’s a special, special player.”
It is hard to overstate just how incredible Jokic and Murray were in Game 3.
Jokic’s every move seemed fine-tuned for excellence, and his team fed off of everything he did. The scoring. The facilitation and how it drove the offense and filled his guys with confidence. The rebounds that more often than not turned into push-the-pace transition buckets that shifted the scoreboard and fed his team’s confidence.
“Regarding Nikola, nothing he does surprises me ever,” Malone said. “This guy has shown time and time again that he’s built for these moments. He thrives in these moments, the biggest stage. He did that once again tonight.”
Murray, too, was so special. Hitting brutally difficult shots. Quelling Heat runs with his own offensive genius. Steadying the ship whenever it wobbled under the weight of Miami’s determination and unwillingness to just go away.
“I’m really proud of Jamal, and I could tell speaking to him [Tuesday],” Malone said, “being around him the last 48 hours, that he was putting a lot of Game 2 on him, and it wasn’t just him. It was me and every one of our players.”
Murray’s 12 fourth-quarter points to beat back what has become the inevitable late-game Heat run was the exclamation point on the night.
There is a lot of basketball to go. But after Wednesday night, it’s clear the Heat aren’t just facing the best team in the Western Conference. They’re facing two of the best players in the game, period.
That’s a wholly different challenge than what they had to endure to get here. For if they can’t solve that problem — given that the Jokic-Murray duo is looking like the game’s best — the Heat’s amazing run will be nearing its end.