The Nuggets put themselves on the doorstep of NBA immortality Friday, downing the Heat on the road, 108-95, in Game 4 of the Finals to come within one win of the club’s first-ever league title.
Denver swept the two contests in Miami, but Friday’s win looked completely different than the team’s triumph in Game 3, in which two-time MVP Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray dominated the Heat with their two-man game.
Here were the three things that stood out most in the pivotal Game 4.
Miami missed its golden opportunity with Jokić on the bench
It’d be strange to say the Heat, as an underdog, should be kicking themselves for not taking advantage of an opportunity. As a No. 8 seed, no one—aside from Jimmy Butler perhaps—had them making it this far to begin with. Still, just when the game was looking out of reach for Miami, Jokić was forced to the bench with 9:24 left in the game after an official whistled him for a fifth foul—one that, upon looking at the replay, looked like a clear Bam Adebayo flop.
Denver was a whopping 24.8 points per 100 possessions better with its superstar on the floor during the regular season, per Cleaning the Glass—a net rating that placed Jokić’s impact on the Nuggets in the league’s 100th percentile. It should go without saying that this club is always liable to falter without him on the court.
Yet without him in those five-plus minutes with him sidelined, the Nuggets held up. Stuff got a bit hairy for them momentarily—the Heat cut their deficit from 10 to five in that first minute Jokić sat out—but then Denver’s defense clamped down, perhaps taking advantage of its ability to switch better without Jokić there.
Murray looked exhausted at one point after taking greater offensive responsibility with his star teammate out. But he got plenty of help in those moments from Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown. And by the time Jokić reentered with about four minutes left, Denver’s lead was nine, and felt almost insurmountable given that Miami hadn’t been able to cut into things further during his absence.
Denver’s depth shined again
After the Nuggets’ overpowering Game 1 win, we referred to their offense as a sort of Whac-a-Mole. It’s easy enough to suggest that cutting off the head of the snake by taking Jokić or Murray away (as passers or scorers) will increase your likelihood of beating them. But neither of those guys shined compared to what they accomplished during a historic Game 3, when both players landed triple doubles.
There were incredible flashes from both, as always. Murray logged a 12-assist, zero-turnover showing, and between the two of them, they hit half their attempts from deep. But limiting them to 38 points on 36 shot attempts is really, really hard to do. Absent the other context, you’d absolutely take that sort of outcome if you’re Miami coach Erik Spoelstra.
Just one problem: This team is deep enough to win even when those guys don’t score the ball efficiently.
Gordon has his highest-scoring game of the entire postseason, notching 27 points on just 15 shots and while also seeing the floor brilliantly and logging six assists. He looked much like he did in Game 1, when he bullied overmatched Heat defenders into the restricted area, but also got loose as a cutter the same way rookie Christian Braun did so many times in Game 3.
Brown, perhaps the league’s best free-agent signing from last summer, looked just as aggressive at times in racing to the basket. He balanced pushing the ball with a precise jumper, hitting three of his five attempts from deep, and had 21 points of his own.
We know Miami has depth, too, as we’ve heard the endless story of how many undrafted players the club fields, and how the Heat have squeezed everything there is to get out of them. But that notion—that there’s nothing left to get out of these guys—looks more and more true at times throughout this series. Gabe Vincent, who’s played incredibly this postseason, struggled with foul trouble again, and shot just 1-of-6 for two points. Max Strus was even less productive, going scoreless on four shot attempts.
The starting backcourt combining for two points on a night where Adebayo struggled and missed a number of short-range looks—most notably in those crucial minutes where Jokić was sidelined—spelled doom for Miami. There just isn’t enough consistency throughout this Heat offense, which feels like the polar opposite from Denver, which has put up 104, 108, 109 and 108 points in this series.
After all the questions, Denver’s defense has shown to be title worthy
We all went into this Finals knowing the Heat couldn’t make too many mistakes if they were going to have a shot to win this thing. So what does it say when, in their biggest game of the year, they turned the ball over 16 times to Denver’s eight miscues?
You can certainly pin it on Miami if you’d like. But to some extent, it feels like Denver is more deserving of credit than the Heat are deserving of blame.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got criticism for his last few games and rightfully so. He wasn’t great offensively on Friday, either. But he showed up in an enormous way defensively in that fourth quarter while Jokić was on the bench with the five fouls, swatting a close-range attempt from Butler, then picking Butler’s pocket as he sought to recover the ball and go back up with it. Gordon was solid defensively, too, when playing the center spot in place of Jokić in a small-ball lineup.
In terms of doubling up the Heat in the turnover category, that isn’t what the Nuggets are known for at all, really. They were a bottom-10 club in forcing turnovers, and were merely a middle-of-the-pack defense, a metric that had many questioning if they were great enough on that end to win a championship.
But after holding the Heat under 100 points for the third time in four games to start the series, things are coming into focus. This is beginning to look like destiny for the Nuggets, who now just sit one victory away from their Mile High throne as league champions for the first time.