MIAMI — The Nuggets just kept executing.
Nikola Jokić gets sent to the bench with five fouls — after Bam Adebayo earned an Oscar nomination drawing it — and it feels like the game and the series were about to turn. The crowd rocking and the Nuggets’ lead that was at 10 when he went out quickly was just five. But when Jokić returned after 5:16 of game time the Nuggets were still up nine. Without the two-time MVP, the Nuggets just kept executing their offense.
The Heat played their most physical, intense defense of the Finals, selling out to slow Jamal Murray in particular and not letting him score 30+ again. The Nuggets just executed their offense, and Murray finished with 12 assists without one turnover while others stepped up — led by Aaron Gordon with a game-high 27 and Bruce Brown with 21 points off the bench, including 11 in the fourth, highlighted by a critical step-back 3.
“When he did a step-back three, I wanted to punch him, but when he made it, I was so happy,” Jokić said.
It was like that all game long. Whenever Miami would make a run — the kind of stretch that became an avalanche and overwhelmed Boston and Milwaukee — Denver would just get the ball to Jokić, or Murray would draw the defense and kick to an open shooter, and the Nuggets executed their offense and got a bucket. They calmed things down, they didn’t contribute to their own demise.
It was championship-level execution from the Nuggets as they closed the game on a 17-7 run. The Nuggets were doing to the Heat in Miami what the Heat had done to every other team they faced this postseason.
Denver won Game 4 108-92, sweeping the two games in Miami (both by double digits), and now have a commanding 3-1 NBA Finals lead.
Game 5 is Monday night in Denver and it may feel more like a coronation than a basketball game.
Miami played hard. The Heat came out with their plan, they attacked the rim and did get 46 points in the paint, outscoring the Nuggets there.
But facing Denver’s elite offense, Miami needs more points and the path to that is knocking down their 3s — Miami was 8-of-25, 32%. Denver was 14-of-28 (50%) from beyond the arc.
Early on this felt like it could be a Heat night. The game was a rock fight from the opening tip, with both teams playing intense defense and missing shots they have hit much of the series. However, Denver appeared comfortable in that style and pushed their lead out to seven. Then Jimmy Butler scored seven points in a 10-2 Heat run to end the quarter and it was 21-20 Miami after one.
The start of the second quarter would prove to be a foreshadowing of the critical stretch of the fourth quarter.
The Nuggets were +1 in non-Jokić minutes to start the second thanks to eight points from Gordon in that stretch. Gordon stretched that out to 16 in the quarter and helped the Nuggets lead by four at the half — 55-51 — in a game that continued to be played in the Heat’s preferred style. Jokić had 16 points at the half but just two assists.
Denver started the third playing maybe their best basketball of the series and looking to blow the game open, getting the lead up to 13. But then came a stretch of sloppy basketball that let the Heat get the lead down to six and hang around the game. Things were getting intense…
Then came a several-minute break to check a bent rim and backboard that were at an angle. They were pulled there by a Bam Adebayo missed dunk (he missed a lot of bunnies this game), a problem noticed by Kyle Lowry. Jokić tried to hang on the rim to fix it, but it took a guy in a suit going up a ladder with a level and some tools.
Soon after Jokić to the bench with 9:24 left in the game and it felt like the entire Finals were going to turn.
The Nuggets just kept executing. Nothing changed.
“Every time we felt like we got it to six or eight, they were able to push it to 12,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the night. “That was certainly a frustrating part of the game. Brown was a big part of — some of his random drives and plays in the middle of the paint when you’re expecting it to be Murray or somebody else.”
Those plays have the Nuggets one win away from the franchise’s first NBA title.
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