NBA Finals: Nuggets' 1-2 punch of Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray gives them 2-1 series lead

Michael Malone admitted as much following Game 2, and he spoke again prior to tipoff Wednesday night, about his Denver Nuggetsfourth-quarter struggles against the Miami Heat during these NBA Finals. When the final frame of Game 3 began at Kaseya Center, visiting Denver carried a 14-point advantage behind a leading charge from Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray. This time around, Malone left Jokić on the floor instead of the bench unit that has featured Murray with Aaron Gordon, plus the Nuggets’ trio of standard reserves: versatile Bruce Brown, rookie Christian Braun and veteran Jeff Green.

Jokić was simply sensational. Denver had no choice but to leave him on the floor with a chance to swipe home-court advantage back in the Nuggets’ favor. The two-time MVP was the first player in NBA history to post more than 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a Finals performance, a true triumph at the center of Denver’s 109-94 victory that reclaimed a 2-1 series lead over the Heat. Jokić’s final tally: 32 points, 21 rebounds and 10 helpers. At this rate, is there a better word than “masterpiece” to describe the Serbian’s showing on this championship stage?

Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets shoots over Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat during the second quarter in Game Three of the 2023 NBA Finals at Kaseya Center on June 07, 2023 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

The bookends of Denver’s offense worked their perfected two-man game much of the evening, Jokić catching feeds from Murray in the paint, the confident guard pulling up into midrange finishes and step-back triples. Murray would finish with his own 30-point triple-double: a game-high 34 points, plus 10 rebounds and 10 assists. The Nuggets, though, have lacked a consistent third contributor to their offense all series. Gordon’s interior dominance from the early stretch of Game 1 has not followed. Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have been ineffective weapons on the perimeter. And while Murray opened the fourth quarter with a jumper and Jokić contributed 4 early points, it was Braun who rocketed off Denver’s bench and helped the Nuggets stem another double-digit Miami comeback.

Braun packed quite the punch — 15 points — during his 19 minutes. Against Miami’s zone defense with Duncan Robinson on the court, Braun shot backdoor down the baseline on a number of Murray’s drives throughout this contest. The 22-year-old plays coiled at all times, ready to spring into a powerful burst, whether on the glass or attacking a closeout or poking a pass free for a transition finish. His drive and dish for Jokić’s short jumper early in the fourth pushed Denver’s lead back to 16. Braun then sliced down the baseline and finished through Gabe Vincent’s contact for an and-1 finish that got the lead back to 19. He charged right at Jimmy Butler in the open floor on the very next possession and scored once more.

Butler returned to his postseason brilliance throughout much of the evening, leading Miami with a team-high 28 points. Adebayo was right behind him with 22 points and 17 rebounds, and thundered a vicious put-back slam on Jokić in the second quarter. But for the barrage of 3-pointers the Heat’s supporting cast contributed in Game 2, only Caleb Martin reached double-digit scoring outside of Miami’s main actors. Robinson corked a couple of late triples, enough to have Malone shaking his head and calling timeout with just over a minute remaining. Denver managed to keep the Heat at bay, however.

The complete final frame that has evaded the Nuggets against this scrappy opponent, the quarter that saw the Nuggets’ fumble their first home game of the entire postseason in Game 2, was nothing but a low bar to hurdle once this matchup shifted to South Florida. Denver has won four consecutive games on the road this postseason. Miami has now lost three straight on its home floor.

For how knotted this Finals felt a few days ago, Denver looked to have found enough momentum to perhaps steamroll through a fourth battle Friday, before the Nuggets could close out their first championship in franchise history back at Ball Arena in Game 5. Or will this Miami team, which has not said die once in these playoffs, live to tell another comeback tale?