Om YoungmisukESPN staff writer4 minutes of reading
MIAMI — When Nikola Jokic was ejected for his fifth foul of the game with just over nine minutes left in Game 4, the Denver Nuggets were staring at a crucial stretch without their two-time MVP.
Head coach Michael Malone described the typical non-comedy minutes for the Nuggets as “a crapshoot,” putting his hands over his face and pretending to poke his fingers to describe how dangerous those moments have been this season.
But on Friday, the Nuggets turned their longest five-plus minutes of the season into one that would put them one win away from its first NBA championship.
Jokic had a five-minute, 15-second layup as Jamal Murray orchestrated the Nuggets’ offense. He stopped any double teams that came his way as the Nuckets fended off every Miami Heat challenge to win 108-95 and take a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
Murray has drawn a lot of attention for his scoring in the postseason. But on Friday, he scored just 15 points on 5-of-17 shooting but had 12 assists.
“It’s four rounds now — Minnesota, Phoenix, [the Lakers] Now Miami — our bench as a whole has done a good job. You know all season, it’s non-Nicola minutes, like a crapshoot. You watch the game like this sometimes,” said Malone, covering his eyes with his hands.
He added: “Our offense won’t be as good as it is with Nikola, but the five guys out there defend and that’s the key to that group playing well.”
Most of Game 4 was played at Miami’s preferred pace. It was a low-scoring game, and then Jokic was forced to sit out with 9:24 remaining. Miami could have asked for a fourth.
The Heat opened the fourth with an 8-0 run to pull within 86-81 with 8:42 left. But Murray buried a 3 while Jokic, who had 23 points and 12 rebounds in 37 minutes, looked on.
Then he hit Aaron Gordon, who finished with 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists in the finals, including a layup inside. When Miami got inside the Sixers, Murray found Jeff Green for a 3. Later, Murray helped Bruce Brown — who scored 11 points in the fourth quarter, taking advantage of Miami trying to slow Murray down with double teams — a driving setup.
By the time Malone pulled Jokic back with 4:09 left, the Nuggets had a 96-87 lead. They outscored Miami 12-4 and extended their advantage to 17 with 1:21 left.
“It’s another win,” Jokic said, trying to keep his team focused. “We’ve got to win one more. I like that we’re not resting. We’re not comfortable. We’re still desperate. We still want it. That’s what makes me happy, the guys are not resting.”
In the regular season, Jokic had 367 more points when he was on the bench, according to an ESPN Stats & Information study.
But Murray, who has 10 or more assists in each of his last four games, refused to let Denver wilt when Miami was more aggressive.
“He’s going to find a way to impact the game,” Malone said. “The most impressive thing to me is that he had 15 points tonight and he was 5-for-17 from the field. But 12 assists and zero turnovers, and somehow, OK, they put two on me, let me play the perfect game. Perfect. He didn’t get bored playing the game. He didn’t say ‘I’m trying to save us and take the team’.
“He read the defense, made the right play, and trusted. That’s a big part of our culture is trusting each other. I thought Jamal’s trust in his teammates was at a very high level tonight.”
Jokic, who tweaked his ankle early in the game but continued to play, has repeatedly said he will follow Murray’s lead this postseason.
“I think that’s where you see the growth and maturity in his game,” Jokic said of Murray’s athleticism. “I think he was amazing today, and of course, some nights you miss and some nights you make it. But he’s our leader and we follow him.”
Now, the Nuggets head back to Denver, where they’ll look to atone for their first home loss of the season with a championship-clinching victory in Game 2 of Heat 5.
“We’re focused, dialed in and ready to get this done,” Murray said.
He added: “We’re ready to win a championship. We’ve got the tools to do it. It’s been on our mind for a while. We’re in. I don’t think you have to overthink it. . . We’re just dialed in and ready to win.”