MIAMI — Denver can point to a lot of things it did right in Game 3.
This was the Nuggets’ best defensive game of the series, holding the Heat to 37% shooting and a 102.2 offensive rating (12.8 below their playoff average). The Nuggets held their own in the fourth quarter for the first time this series, winning it by one. Then Christian Braun came out of nowhere to have a night with 15 points, and the Nuggets scored 60 points in the paint.
But it all starts with Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray — they became the first teammates ever to have 30-point triple-doubles in the same game. Ever. Let alone in a critical Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
“By far their greatest performance as a duo in their seven years together,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
They led Denver to a comfortable 109-94 win on the road to take a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals. Game 4 is Friday night in Miami, and it’s basically must win for the Heat.
Miami will have to come up with better answers for the Nuggets stars, which is what every team has been saying since the playoffs started.
Jokić finished with 32 points (on 21 shots), 21 rebounds and 10 assists — Jokić had the first 30-20-10 game in NBA Finals history. In fact, there have been five such games in NBA playoff history, and he has three of them.
“I don’t care it’s just a stat,” Jokić said in maybe the most Jokić statement ever.
“What he does, man, he makes it look so easy,” Murray said of Jokic. “You know, you’ve got 21 boards and everybody talking about how he can’t jump, and he’s out there battling everybody, physically strong. They say he doesn’t want to doesn’t want to score, he gives you 32. And 10 assists. He just makes the game look easy throughout the game, and like I said, his free throws his touch, creativity, the no-look passes, his IQ. I could go down the line, he’s a special player.”
Then there was Murray, who led the Nuggets with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. While he shot 3-of-6 from 3, the big difference was Denver changed their screen angles in this game, it threw the Heat off and Murray got rolling downhill early. He finished with 14 points in the paint plus he got to the line eight times. With Murray attacking and being deadly from the midrange, the Heat were overwhelmed.
“They just pummeled us in the paint,” Erik Spoelstra said. “They didn’t really have to shoot threes. They had, whatever, 60 in the paint. They probably shot over 65% in the paint at the rim there [it was 69% in the restricted area]. Wasn’t a need to space the floor. We didn’t offer much resistance.”
Murray was getting downhill from the opening tip. The result of that and Jokić being Jokić was Denver getting 20 of its 24 points in the paint. The game was tied 24-24 after one quarter despite the Nuggets missing all of its 3-pointers (0-of-5) and Miami shooting 9-of-23. Jimmy Butler was aggressive with 10 in the first quarter (he would finish with 28 points on 11-of-24 shooting).
The second quarter had little flow because of all the whistles — it was a Tony Brothers statement game at points — and the Nuggets’ defense.
Denver was just sharper on defense than they have been all series and that started with their activity level — it was extremely high. They were swiping at the ball, being physical and bothering the Heat. The Nuggets also were much better on their low-man help rotations, getting in front of Bam Adebayo more and taking away some easy buckets.
Miami was not making Denver pay from beyond the arc in this game, as it shot just 11-of-35 (31.4%) from 3 on the night.
The first 24 minutes were played on the Heat’s terms, but that didn’t knock Jamal Murray off his game. Murray shot 8-of-13 in the first half on his way to 20 points, including 3-of-5 from 3. Throw in 14 first-half points from Jokić and the Nuggets took a 53-48 lead into halftime. Jimmy Butler put up stats, 14 points, but on 6-of-16 shooting.
The third quarter was more Butler for the Heat — 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the frame — but he wasn’t getting help. The rest of the Heat in the third shot 3-of-14 and had just eight points. All those misses and a strong rebounding game from Denver had them running and in more of a free flow.
The Nuggets also got a significant contribution from Christian Braun off the bench, who had six points in the third, two on brilliant cuts to the rim and one on a steal and a dunk.
Denver led by as many as 19 and was up 14 entering the fourth… but that is when the Heat have dominated this series.
Not this game. Miami cranked up the defensive pressure and made some plays, but Denver was ready for the zone and the pressure. They were not rushed. They got the ball to Jokić and it settled them.
And with that, the Nuggets settled the game and took the series lead.
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