NBA Finals Takeaways: Nuggets’ unheralded defence puts team on brink of title

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) defends Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) during the first half of Game 4 of the basketball NBA Finals, Friday, June 9, 2023, in Miami. (Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo)

Was this going to be a series or nah?

Those were the stakes Friday night in Miami. If the Denver Nuggets could win in Game 4 and head home leading 3-1, this would most likely be done. Teams leading 3-1 in the NBA Finals have gone onto win the title 35 out of 36 times — and 267 out of 280 times in the playoffs overall with the same series edge. If the Heat could even things up, this would be a best-of-three series, and anything could happen.

The Nuggets forced the Heat’s hand with an impressive 108-95 win thanks to a defensive resiliency that no one was sure they had before the playoffs began. Denver held Miami to under 95 or fewer points for the second straight time as the Nuggets came to sea level and swept two on the road from the Heat, putting themselves in position to clinch the franchise’s first NBA title in Game 5 as the series shifts back to the Mile High City on Monday.

Aaron Gordon led Denver in scoring with 27 points on 11-of-15 shooting. Nikola Jokic had 23 points, 12 rebounds and four assists and Canadian Jamal Murray finished with 15 points and 12 assists. Bruce Brown came off the bench and scored 11 of his 21 in the fourth quarter. Denver shot 49.5 per cent from the floor and 14-of-28 from deep.

Jimmy Butler led the Heat with 25 points and seven assists as they shot 45 per cent from the floor and 8-of-25 from deep. The Nuggets forced Miami into 15 turnovers.

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The Heat have been a tough out all post-season, but winning three straight against Denver seems a bit too big of an ask.

The takeaways:

Denver’s championship quality defence 

Before the playoffs started no one was concerned about the viability of the Nuggets as a championship contender, offensively at least. With Jokic conducting traffic, Murray a proven closer, the cutting and spot up shooting — respectively — of Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the game-breaking wildcard that is Michael Porter Jr., scoring wasn’t going to be a problem.

Denver was fifth in offence in the regular season despite playing the last third of the schedule on cruise control, it seemed. With the intensity increased in the post-season, the Nuggets entered Friday night’s game with an 18-4 record and leading the playoffs in offensive rating, averaging 119.3 points per 100 possessions — better than the 118.6/100 that Sacramento managed during the regular season for an NBA record.

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But in the first quarter of Game 4, the Nuggets couldn’t score. Porter Jr. was 0-for-4 on aggressive drives to the rim. Gordon got swarmed by the Heat at the rim and couldn’t finish. Even Jokic missed a couple of point-blank chances – unusual for him.

The Nuggets shot just 6-of-19 in the first quarter. But it wasn’t a problem. They trailed only 21-20 because of the Nuggets’ defensive effort. Denver was 15th in defence in the regular season, allowing 113.5 points/100 but are sixth in the playoffs — allowing just 111.4/100 against a higher level of competition.

In the first quarter, Denver stayed close early because they bothered the Heat into five turnovers and only gave up one offensive rebound. It’s the little things that turn good teams to great, and the Nuggets have been doing more of those defensively that at any point this season.

They did it down the stretch too as Caldwell-Pope stripped Butler in the paint, leading to a Nuggets fast break with Jokic on the bench with foul trouble. Caldwell-Pope stripped Bam Adebayo in the post on the next possession. Then they forced another Heat turnover. It all bought time for when Jokic was on the bench with five fouls.

Jamal magic

Murray has always been a bit of challenge to define, positionally. If anything he’s always been more of a scoring guard than a point guard. But in these Finals his playmaking has been exceptional. His 12 assists in Game 4 marked his fourth straight game with 10 or more assists, a record for a player in his first Finals.

He was exceptionally good in the long stretch of the fourth quarter when Jokic was sitting. After hitting a huge three when the Heat had cut the Nuggets’ lead to five, Murray found Gordon for a lay-up, hit him for a wide-open lay-up and then hit Jeff Green in the corner for another three to put Denver up by nine against before Jokic returned to floor.

Murray might be a scorer first, but he managed his team when the Nuggets needed it most and was able to make plays without scoring. Impressive stuff.

There is nothing Jokic can’t do

Jokic took 71 per cent of his field-goal attempts from inside 10 feet during the regular season and he’s excellent from that distance, converting 67.2 per cent of them. But when Jokic rolled his left ankle battling for an offensive rebound midway through the first quarter, he seemed a little bit less interested in putting the ball on the floor for his meandering drives through the paint.

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It might have been a coincidence, or it might have been Jokic not feeling comfortable jumping and landing in crowds for a little bit. But the Joker’s got tricks.

He stepped out and hit a pair of threes in quick order in the second quarter on his way to a casual 16 first-half points that tied him for the Nuggets’ lead with Gordon. It’s a nice skill to pull out of your back pocket. Jokic is shooting 47 per cent from three so far in the playoffs and 41.2 per cent in his post-season career.

For comparison’s sake, Dirk Nowitzki — widely considered the best shooting big man of all time — retired as a 36.5-per-cent three-point shooter over 145 playoff starts. Steph Curry is at 39.7 per cent over his 147 playoff games.

The Heat made a point of taking Murray out of the game as much as they could but paid at times when they didn’t rotate to Jokic, and he settled into wide-open threes that he can shoot as well as anyone.

Kyle is old, but he’s still old Kyle

Kyle Lowry grabbing Gordon’s arm, tugging it into his body and drawing a foul. Lowry driving the lane and finding an angle cutter with a last-minute dump off. Lowry using his compact bulk to defend the post against the bigger Gordon. Lowry dribbling to his left and pulling up for three.

It was vintage Lowry in Game 4, at least in the early going. The former Toronto Raptors star feasted on an extra dose of minutes in the first half as Heat starting guard Gabe Vincent was hit with some foul trouble.

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Lowry finished the first half with 13 points and four assists, outscoring the entire Nuggets bench by himself. Lowry is 37, in his 17th season and coming off a difficult year as he tried to manage a knee injury, but he can still impact winning at the highest levels.

For how much longer, who knows? But he did plenty of good stuff in Game 4. He got some more early minutes in the third quarter and defended Murray well. He also orchestrated some offence when the Heat needed it most as the Nuggets were trying to pull away in the third. He didn’t score again but added three more assists.

Lowry gave his team what they needed when they needed it; same as it ever was.

He just fits

Gordon was supposed to the finishing piece in the Nuggets’ championship puzzle. That was the thinking when Denver acquired the No. 4 overall pick taken in the 2014 draft from the Orlando Magic at the trade deadline in the 2020-21 season.

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Denver had made a run to Western Conference Finals in the bubble in 2020 and was thinking bigger. Gordon seemed like the perfect piece: a bruising, high-flying cutter who could feast on a steady diet of lobs from Jokic at one end and help for Jokic defensively and on the glass at the other.

But then Murray tore his ACL and Porter Jr. needed back surgery and the Nuggets had to wait two years to see their team whole.

It was pretty obvious what the Nuggets were hoping for in Game 4 as Gordon was in ‘beast mode’ from the opening tip. Multiple times he would make catches in traffic and explode to the rim for a dunk. Two stood out: first, a catch in traffic on a pin-point pass from the top by Jokic.

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The six-foot-eight former dunk contest winner jumped higher than anyone to make the catch, pivoted, dribbled, and rose up against for the almost shocking slam.

In the third quarter, Gordon cut baseline even though it seemed impossible that Jokic would see him in the middle of his own spin dribble. Jokic did, of course, and Gordon finished high and hard again.

He added another alley-oop, a put-back and corner three as the Nuggets finished the third quarter on a 10-5 run to take a 86-73 lead into the fourth. At that point Gordon — looking every bit the final piece to the Nuggets championship puzzle — had 25 points to lead all scorers. It’s hard to imagine this Nuggets team without him.

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