MIAMI — Just three days ago, the Denver Nuggets were punched in the mouth, losing Game 2 of the NBA Finals, their first home loss this postseason.
Jamal Murray struggled to score, looking overwhelmed by the Miami Heat’s defense. And Nikola Jokic, who is averaging a triple-double in these playoffs, was relatively bottled up — meaning, he scored 41 points, but was reduced to just being a scorer, as he dished out only four assists.
For a Denver team that is favored to win its first championship in franchise history, losing home court advantage was deeply jolting.
So, over the next few days, the Nuggets reset.
They had a team dinner at Jeff Green’s home in South Florida. They had a constructive film session, with each player having a chance to voice what they could’ve done better.
“You have to take a negative and make it into a positive,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said before Game 3. “And maybe that’s a wake-up call. Maybe it’s like, ‘Hey man, understand the moment that we’re in — and don’t ease into it.'”
Jokic and Murray responded by making history in the Nuggets’ 109-94 win in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead.
Jokic had 32 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists — the first 30-20-10 game in NBA Finals history. Murray had 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, the third straight game in which he had 10 dimes.
It was the first time in NBA history — regular season or playoffs — that teammates have had 30-point triple-doubles in the same game.
“By far their greatest performance as a duo in their seven years together,” Malone said.
Both players were the best version of themselves. The Nuggets had the advantage in rebounding (58 to 33), assists (28 to 20) and field goal percentage (51.2% to 37%). The Heat’s defense was helpless against their two-man symphony, unable to slow down any aspect of either of their games.
Afterward, the teammates praised each other.
When Jokic was asked what happens when Murray plays such a complete game, he said, “We win. I think it’s pretty simple.”
And when Murray was asked about Jokic’s dominance, he said, “He’s a special, special player.”
Jokic and Murray are in the Finals for the first time in their careers. They’ve been together through heartbreaking losses and devastating injuries. But on Wednesday, a bond that has been cultivated over nearly a decade was on full display.
“I’d say it’s a trust and a feel,” Murray said. “That’s the best way for me to put it. It’s not really X’s and O’s. It’s just reading the game and trusting that the other is going to make the right play.”
Murray said they’ve learned to read each other. They’re both capable of doing so many things on the court. They know when to take over. And they know when to give each other space.
That dance was performed on the NBA’s grandest stage Wednesday, with both of them enabling each other to shine.
“If he throws it to me, he knows and expects what to see from me,” Murray said. “And he knows the mood I’m in, the intensity I’m playing with, whether it’s low or high, time and score, and vice versa.
“I know when he’s over-passing, I know when he’s looking to score, I know when he’s the best player on the floor, I know when he’s taking a second to get into the game.”
For the Nuggets’ superstars, it was a statement win. After Game 2, Jokic acknowledged that after a loss like that, there’s “a bad atmosphere” and “bad momentum.” As for Murray, he blamed himself for the defeat. He had just 18 points, a steep drop-off from the 27 points he has averaged this postseason. Malone put his arm around him at Tuesday’s practice and made sure he felt his support.
“That’s what champions do,” Malone said. “That’s what warriors do. They battled back. I felt his presence all day long. Forget the stats for a second. I felt Jamal’s presence, his energy, And he was here in the moment.”
Now, the Nuggets are two wins away from making the only type of history that truly matters to them.
Shortly after being delivered that Game 2 wake-up call, Denver appears alert.
“I felt this is by far our best game of the series, most complete game of the series,” Malone said.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.