With a minute left in a Game 4 that he had long since put to bed, Denver Nuggets reserve Bruce Brown saw the Miami Heat's Duncan Robinson in front him and dribbled into an isolation 3-pointer he had made just four times in his previous 2,770 minutes this season. This is how comfortable Denver is in these NBA Finals.
"When he did a step-back 3, I wanted to punch him," joked Nuggets star Nikola Jokić, whose foul trouble coincided with the customary Heat rally to open the fourth quarter, "but when he made it, I was so happy."
Brown and teammate Aaron Gordon combined for 48 points on 19-of-26 shooting (73.1%) on a night when Jokić and Jamal Murray were not the unstoppable scoring duo they had been in their Games 1 and 3 victories against Miami, and Denver rolled to a second straight road win, 108-95, to take a 3-1 series lead.
The Nuggets can secure the franchise's first NBA championship at home in Game 5 on Monday night.
If ever there were a game to steal and reel in a series that is slipping away against the league's most potent offense, this was it for the Heat. Forty-eight hours from their historic 30-point triple-doubles, Jokić and Murray were not torching the South Beach night. They totaled 38 points on 13-of-36 shooting (36.1%), and still the Nuggets found their way to the 119 points per 100 possessions they have been posting all playoffs.
When asked about his 23 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocks — numbers only ever matched in the Finals by LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan — Jokić scoffed at a statistical line that stands as a testament to how much we expect from the Serbian and he expects from himself.
"It's not big — 23, 12 and 4?" said Jokic, who missed 11 of his 19 shots and rolled an ankle in the opening quarter. "Fourth ever to 23, 10 and 4? I mean, I don't know. Nice. It's good. I really don't know what to say."
Jokić picked up his fourth and fifth fouls in a 17-second span early in the fourth quarter. The Heat had already shaved three points off of Denver's 13-point lead at the start of the frame, and they added five more to close within 86-81 with 8:42 still to play, forcing a timeout from Nuggets head coach Michael Malone.
Malone called for his bread and butter, only this time with Gordon serving as a small-ball screener in Jokić's role, handing off to a curling Murray for a 26-footer that pushed Denver's lead back to eight. Neither Murray nor Jokić scored over the game's final 8:25, and yet the Heat would climb no closer than six points again.
Jeff Green, the Nuggets' 36-year-old veteran, made his only attempt of the night — a corner 3-pointer for the 11th of Murray's 12 assists — that made it a three-possession game midway through the fourth quarter.
"They were blitzing every pick-and-roll, just basically trying to limit my shot attempts, and I wasn't fighting it," said Murray, the first player ever to log 10 assists in each of the first four games of a Finals. "We've got a squad. We've got a lot of guys that can come and impact the game, a lot of guys playing with confidence, so I'm not going to fight it. Make an easy pass, and that's why I've got four other guys out there."
This time, one of them was not Jokić, so Brown took center stage instead.
He finished a 3-on-1 fast break for a layup. He beat Robinson off the dribble to draw a foul from Heat star Jimmy Butler at the rim. The well-traveled second-round pick pulled up in traffic and finished through contract from mid-range for an and-1. He banked home an up-and-under layup with stud Miami center Bam Adebayo on his back. And he drilled the step-back. When the clock hit zeroes, Brown had scored 11 of his 21 points in the final five minutes of the fourth, each of them nudging the Heat closer and closer to summer vacation.
Gordon did the same in the second quarter, when he scored 15 of his 27 points, repeatedly punishing the Heat for leaving him open on the perimeter and for entrusting smaller defenders against him in the paint.
The culture Jokić set has created this environment, where everyone is involved, everyone is constantly moving, expected to attack, expecting to be found. And it carried the day even when he was off the court. Unlike the Boston Celtics, who floundered against Miami when their stars absconded, Denver's role players did what they are accustomed to. They found each other, and this time they met on the brink of a title.
"That's just how this team is built," Gordon said. "We have guys that can step up night in and night out. Sometimes it's not going to be your night, and sometimes it's going to be your night. This team does a good job finding the people that are in rhythm and kind of going. When it comes down to it, it's just wanting to be great for my teammates. I know when my teammates need me, I'm just doing it for my brothers."
The hard-nosed Heat and their band of undrafted craftsmen have met their match in a team so cohesive not even Butler and Adebayo can break them. The Nuggets have grown so comfortable they are single-covering both stars. Nor can Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra figure out how to get Denver unglued. He has gone small with Caleb Martin and big with Kevin Love, and his stash of dissolvents is running dry.
As Gordon said, "I think we have a counter to pretty much everything."
Jokić left the floor with a 10-point advantage and 9:24 standing between the two-time MVP and either a tied Finals or a commanding lead in the series, and his teammates held the fort. Underrated were the three field goals Denver limited the Heat to in their 10 possessions with Jokić on the bench. On three of them, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope consecutively stripped Butler, stood up Adebayo on the block and helped onto Robinson, forcing a travel. With that, Jokić reentered with 4:09 remaining and his team still leading by nine.
"All season long, it was like, 'Oh, the non-Nikola minutes, kind of a crapshoot.' You're watching the game like this sometimes," Malone said, shielding his eyes. "The playoffs, we cut our rotation down ... but the guys that are out there, they're competing and defending. Our offense may not be as beautiful as it is with Nikola, but the five guys that are out there are defending, and that's the key to that group playing well."
This and the health of Murray are the differences between these Nuggets and the versions that got worked by the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors the last two playoffs. No one wins a championship alone. Rings are won as a team, and on every stage of this postseason, Denver has performed like the best one.
"We're just ready to win a championship," Murray said. "We have the tools to do it."