Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray and the rest of the Denver Nuggets circled around head coach Michael Malone in their pregame locker room Thursday night. Nine days separated the Western Conference champions from Game 1 of the NBA Finals, a game Denver would need to buck an incredible trend in order to win. Miami stole the first game, on the road, in each of the Heat’s three series throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. Malone was adamant that the streak would come to an end at Ball Arena.
“Not tonight,” Malone barked. “Not in our house.”
A dominant showing, with another masterful triple-double from All-NBA center Jokić, and the Nuggets thwarted Miami’s run of road victories by extending their own impressive streak, now 7-0 at home during this postseason following Denver’s 104-93 win. Jokić carved Miami’s defense like a quarterback, tallying 10 first-half assists to various receivers and 10 points on just three buckets en route to a final line of 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds. Wherever the two-time MVP gathered the ball, whether at the top of the key or on the low block, Jokić found an open shooter or slung a bounce pass to a cutter through the lane.
Jokić found Aaron Gordon most often during the game’s opening moments. The Nuggets’ size over Miami’s rangy wings was one of the matchup storylines league personnel were considering before this championship matchup, and the early action often left Gordon isolated against the smaller Caleb Martin or Heat point guard Gabe Vincent — both easily overpowered by the 6-foot-10 forward Denver acquired at the 2021 NBA trade deadline.
The Nuggets’ league-average defense was supposed to be a glaring weakness during this postseason, but Denver’s synergy on that side of the ball contained Miami to just 42 first-half points. Michael Porter Jr. had two emphatic blocks on Jimmy Butler and Martin. Perhaps tired Heat legs also played a factor, only a few days removed from a taxing seven-game series against Boston. Heat sharpshooter Max Strus shot 0-of-9 from beyond the arc, with plenty of open looks. Duncan Robinson, the marksman who sniped his way back into Erik Spoelstra’s rotation these playoffs, went just 1-for-5 from distance. Martin, the breakout star of the Eastern Conference championship against the Celtics, connected on just 1-of-7 attempts from the field. Butler was just 6-of-14.
Denver’s attack had no shortage of options. After Gordon’s early showing, Jamal Murray unleashed a flurry of mid-range jumpers. His and Jokić’s long-running pick-and-roll chemistry was on full display to close the third quarter, when they combined on possession after possession to stretch Denver’s lead up to 21 points. It didn’t matter if Murray dribbled off Jokić’s screen into a mid-range pull-up. Or if Murray found Jokić in the post out of his roll, and then Porter scurried over to back-screen for Murray, where Jokić easily found him for a wide-open triple. Denver’s star point guard would finish with 26 points, 10 assists and 6 rebounds.
There are so many layers to Denver’s scoring. Bruce Brown comes off Malone’s bench ready to attack in transition or when the ball swings his direction off Murray’s lead act. His floaters have carried over from Brooklyn. That second unit saw a lot of zone defense from Miami, particularly when Robinson was on the floor. And when Jokić returned from the bench, he found the same soft spots in the Heat’s 2-3 scheme just like Brown before him.
The Heat brought a strong fourth quarter fury, at one moment cutting the Nuggets’ massive lead to nine points, 96-87, with 2:34 to play. But every run pushed by Kyle Lowry, every late heave from another undrafted Miami player in Haywood Highsmith, there was a Jokić bucket or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s cool pull-up jumper that sealed this opening contest for the Nuggets.
Miami will have its hands full trying to even this series Sunday night.