MIAMI — The Denver Nuggets were anxious to deliver their first complete NBA Finals game from tip to buzzer without sleepy lapses, and let’s just say half the crowd at Kaseya Center didn’t bother to stick around to see the results.
Fans beat the traffic well before the Nuggets, officially anyway, beat the Miami Heat 109-94 in Game 3. It was that thorough of a win, and the fourth quarter for a change was that undramatic.
There was too much Denver defense, too little Miami help for Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and not one but two too many 30-point triple-doubles by the tremendous give-and-go tandem of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray — that’s never happened before in any game, regular or postseason.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Nuggets also introduced Christian … LeBraun?
The backup rookie point guard (given name: Braun) stole the shine for a generous second-half stretch when he stayed locked in attack mode — he scored 15 points in 19 game-clinching minutes — stole a pass intended for Butler and dunked on him, and gave Denver a source of energy that caught Miami by surprise.
All told, the way the Nuggets seized the lead in the Finals was reassuring for them, problematic for the Heat. It’s now 2-1, the Nuggets two wins from a title, the Heat two days from hosting another game and a chance to crawl back into the series and keep from falling dangerously behind.
Here are Five Takeaways from the Nuggets’ impressive Game 3 win, and why their confidence is soaring, and why the Heat had trouble scoring:
1.Jokic legend is rising
He only cares about the championship trophy, and believe him when he says that. And maybe that’ll happen by next week. But along the way, Jokic is building quite a case to be included among the top five-ish centers of all time. And Wednesday was another legitimate step in that direction.
The dominance he’s showing in this series is impressive — and again, he’s doing it against Adebayo, a solid defender. Joker became the first player to register a 30-20-10 line in a Finals game (officially, 32-21-10) and simply was too much for the Heat to handle.
The way Jokic is locked in, relentless and driven in this series is the attitude we’ve seen from other greats in past Finals. He has yet to have a poor game or make many mistakes, and is easily the most consistent Nugget in the series. In Game 3, Jokic mainly confined his damage in the paint, both with his baby hooks, tap-ins and layups, and also with his defensive rebounding (18), limiting Miami to just one shot on a score of possessions.
“He’s going to do what he’s gong to do,” said Heat guard Kyle Lowry. “He’s seven feet. He can pretty much do everything.”
Here are Jokic’s three games in this series: 27-10-14, 41-11-4 and now 32-21-10. Unless something drastically changes in his demeanor — and don’t count on that — or he endures an unexpected dry spell, Jokic has a look we’ve seen before this time of year — from Finals MVPs and champions.
2. Murray makes for double trouble
Sure, he missed that potential game-tying shot at the buzzer in Game 2, but in a sense, Murray was totally on the mark for Game 3. He first set the tone with 20 first-half points, then settled into a give-and-go groove with Jokic that Miami couldn’t contain.
What happens when they’re in sync? “We win,” said Jokic. “I think it’s pretty simple.”
The way these two became the first teammates to record 30 points and 10 assists each in an NBA game was something to behold. But that’s really what they’ve done all season; it’s just the stakes and the stage are both bigger right now, and therefore the impact is heavier.
It was especially effective how the Nuggets threw a pair of playmakers and ball distributors at Miami and confounded the Heat defense. The screen and rolls created mismatches which were exploited by Jokic and Murray; one player was too much of a load inside, the other proved an elusive shooter and slasher. Those two showed great communication and rhythm. It was a tag-team clinic.
“He’s reading the game really well,” said Jokic. “He’s getting guys involved, and he knows where to find the guys and how to control the game.”
Malone added: “I felt Jamal’s presence, his energy, and he was here in the moment, and for him and Nikola to do what they did tonight in a game that we needed to take, regain home-court advantage of the series, was special to watch. A lot of guys play with each other. I think those two guys play for each other and off of each other and they read each other so well.”
3. Butler was poised for a Jimmy game
At least that’s how it appeared at the start, when Butler was noticeably aggressive with his shot. He took 16 in the first half alone in Game 3. By comparison, he took 14 total in Game 1 and 19 in Game 2.
This early energy went against Butler’s typical strategy of staying methodical, setting up his teammates first, then applying the strong finish if necessary. But his about-face was out of necessity. The Nuggets made his teammates take contested shots, and unlike Game 2 those shots didn’t fall. Last Sunday they made 17 3-pointers; this time, 11.
“We didn’t play our best tonight,” Butler said. “I feel like we just got to come out with more energy and effort, and that’s correctable. That’s on us as a group. No Xs and Os can fix that.”
Butler finished with a team-high 28 points, his high for the series so far, but other than Adebayo (22) Butler didn’t have much support. He was on an island for much of the game. And the Nuggets prevented him from going full-blown Jimmy Game. So far in this series, Butler has been contained and unable to do what he did to the Bucks, to the Knicks, to the Celtics.
With Miami facing a higher seeded team for the fourth time this postseason — and now down 2-1 in this series — it’s very likely the Heat will need at least one demolition from Butler because his teammates (aside from Bam) seem overwhelmed. And that Jimmy Game hasn’t happened yet.
4. MPJ and KCP still AWOL
It’s best for the Nuggets that Murray and Jokic delivered a historic performance and Braun gave them a lift, because once again Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had issues. This time, though, their struggles didn’t cost the Nuggets. But again, it took a ballistic Jokic-Murray-Braun to bail them out.
It’ll be interesting to see how Malone handles these two slumping players. Does he do nothing and allow them to work out their problems? Or reduce their minutes in the moment of truth?
On that second point, KCP was on the bench for a good portion of the third and fourth quarters, yielding to Braun, who earned his elevated playing time. In Game 2, KCP committed silly fouls on the way to fouling out. In Game 3, he was never in the flow and scored one basket.
As for Porter, his 3-point shooting in the series is now 3-for-19 after missing his only two attempts Wednesday. As he promised, he tried attacking the basket early and constantly, and yet that didn’t work either. Porter finished with just two points. He also saw reduced minutes with just 21, his low for the series.
It would be rather bold of Malone to give those two players a short leash from this point on. But this is the Finals. Coaches usually go with what’s working, with who’s producing. And right now, Malone has two starters who aren’t helping the cause.
5. Denver was just too physical
Aside from Jokic and Murray triple-doubling them, the Heat were victimized persistently in the paint. Not only did the Nuggets attack the rim and score in the paint — they attempted only 18 3-pointers — they dominated the glass, out-rebounding Miami 58-33.
It was a decisive display of physicality, and what’s unusual about that is the Nuggets aren’t exactly the biggest team; Jeff Green is their backup center. But they prioritized rebounding and that game within the game was won easily.
Give a salute to Murray, who at the guard position out-rebounded Butler, 10-2. But also Aaron Gordon, who was especially solid in the second half, making it three Nuggets with double-figure rebounds (10).
So, to summarize: The Nuggets had Jokic and Murray working in wonderful unison, got a big lift from Braun, outworked Miami and completely removed the crowd from the game. That last part was surreal at times. The fans were constantly implored by the public address announcer to “make some noise” and that noise amounted to a squeak. There was no electric atmosphere in the building that hosted its first Finals game in nine years because there were few reasons to cheer.
Denver dominated — and this time, for four quarters.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.