DENVER – Nikola Jokic turned his back and went to work like he’d done a thousand times this magical season. His buttery, turnaround jumper, within spitting distance of Miami’s bench, ended the drama late Thursday night.
Denver seized Game 1 of the NBA Finals with an impressive, workmanlike effort against Miami. Its 104-93 victory was a product of staunch and stingy defense. Outside of a lackluster fourth quarter, when Miami made its final push, the Nuggets were dominant on defense.
And they got more than enough from their stars, as Jokic recorded his ninth triple-double of the postseason. His 27-point, 14-assist, 10-rebound effort drew roars from the raucous crowd once it was secured in the fourth quarter.
“That’s the beauty of Nikola,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “… Nikola never forces it.”
Denver’s Jamal Murray finished with 26 points and 10 assists, and Michael Porter Jr., despite a rough 3-point-shooting night, registered a 14-point, 13-rebound double-double. The boards set a playoff career high.
“It’s where it needs to be,” Malone said of Porter’s defense, unwilling to dole out extra praise just because of the stage.
Bam Adebayo finished with 26 points, but the Heat barely shot over 40%. Jimmy Butler managed just 13 points on 6-for-14 shooting from the field. Aaron Gordon, who won the defensive player of the game chain, deserved the credit for that smothering.
“Everybody was on a string,” Denver reserve guard Bruce Brown said.
Gordon was an X-factor, too, with 16 points and most of his damage inside.
The Nuggets can stake a 2-0 lead come Sunday evening.
It was impossible to know how the Nuggets’ extended break before the Finals might impact their game, but in the week leading up to tip-off, to a man, they swore their practices were sharp and focused. When Malone quizzed his team at shootaround Thursday morning on coverages and personnel, he said they aced his questions.
With that, Malone had even more evidence that his team used the time off productively.
In the third quarter, their rotations were crisp and determined. They recovered for each other, rotated when applicable and, as a result, found pay dirt in transition. When the Nuggets play swarming defense – like when Gordon swatted Max Strus’ shot into the first row – they don’t even need much accompanying offense. Yet they had it. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope buried a transition 3-pointer, while Jokic and Murray engineered their two-man game. If that wasn’t enough, Porter and Brown found their stroke. Denver’s lead ballooned to 24 late in the third, and the Nuggets held a commanding 84-63 lead going into the fourth.
Malone was curiously calm prior to Thursday’s tipoff.
“It’s really funny, I was hanging out with one of my daughters last night, and she said, ‘Are you nervous?’ And I said, ‘You know what’s really funny? I’m not.’ I said, ‘I think the reason that I’m not nervous is because I know we’re prepared.’ ”
Malone was at ease in front of a giant throng of national media, cracking jokes and turning down the temperature despite the magnitude of the game.
“I know this is the Finals and this is Game 1; I never knew this part of the building existed,” he said, referencing a portion of the arena that was never necessary before the NBA descended on Denver.
The Nuggets played the first half with the same poised disposition their coach had before the game. On defense, they swarmed. On offense, they hunted mismatches with glee. It yielded a 59-42 halftime lead that was every bit as dominant as the score indicated.
Against the smaller Heat, Denver attacked the paint and leaned heavily on Gordon’s size and strength. Miami had no answer for his tactics.
Murray weaved around screens, picking apart the Heat defenders from all three levels. He had a team-high 18 at halftime.
“For Jamal, it just seems like as the stakes get higher and the stage gets bigger, he embraces that,” Malone said. “He doesn’t shy away from that.”
Jokic was at the helm of Denver’s rollicking offense. Rather than shoot, he facilitated, racking up 10 assists in the first half.
When the Nuggets hustled in transition, it forced mismatches that Jokic was more than happy to exploit. And even in halfcourt sets, he peppered the paint with precision.
But perhaps the most impressive was Porter, who flashed rare athleticism on both ends of the floor. If he wasn’t swatting shots, then he was hammering emphatic dunks that looked and felt like his physical limitations were behind him.
After one, Porter screamed. Denver’s pulsating crowd roared back.