MIAMI – The only thing coursing through the white-hot crowd was an artificial bass.
The Nuggets stormed into South Beach and stomped the life out of the crowd on Wednesday night.
Behind their surgical passing and physical, hard-nosed play, the Nuggets seized control of the NBA Finals with a dominant 109-94 win in Game 3. Behind dueling triple-doubles from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, Denver’s two franchise pillars, the Nuggets wrested homecourt advantage back from Miami after ceding it in Game 2.
Up 2-1 in the series, they can get greedy come Friday’s Game 4. Even though Duncan Robinson connected on a couple late 3-pointers, most Heat fans who’d left with more than three minutes remaining weren’t there to see them.
After the Heat believed they’d found something defensively for Jokic, the two-time MVP systematically destroyed their defense for a 32-point, 21-rebound, 10-assist triple-double. It was ruthless and relentless, and the type of performance that can help carve a legacy. Jokic annihilated the Heat inside, propelling a 60-34 advantage in points in the paint.
Murray, his dance partner, poured in 34 points of his own, dished 10 assists and snatched 10 boards. Their devilish pairing proved unstoppable. With endless counters and unquantifiable chemistry, the two shredded the Heat with their shared basketball language. It was hoops poetry on the game’s greatest stage.
Quiet nights from Michael Porter Jr. (two points) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (six) were immaterial. The Nuggets had corrected the lapses from Game 2 and responded. Their 58-33 edge on the glass was a microcosm of their dominance.
Jimmy Butler managed 28 points, and Bam Adebayo added 22, but both were extremely inefficient in their process.
The Nuggets played outstanding two-way basketball for the entire third quarter and put themselves on the precipice of a monster road win. They worked the ball inside, leaning heavily on their size advantage. And if the Nuggets didn’t score on the initial try, their effort on the second-chance glass was rewarded.
Jokic flashed his soft touch from the mid-range and then stepped outside and buried a 3-pointer from the wing. Always moving, rookie Christian Braun made himself invaluable with his savvy reads and baseline cuts. He even ripped the ball on one opportunity and took off for a dunk the other way. The lead eventually ballooned to 19, as Denver’s confidence, buoyed by its rowdy bench, rose. Jokic dissected the Heat’s defense for 12 in the quarter, and Denver carried an 82-68 lead into the fourth.
During a quiet moment at Tuesday’s practice, Nuggets coach Michael Malone threw his arm around Murray and issued some words of encouragement to his star guard. Without divulging any details of their conversation, Malone alluded to the tenor of it.
“He understands how important he is to this team,” Malone said. “He understands how much I care about him, not just as a player but as a person. My job is not just to point out mistakes. My job is not just to applaud guys when they’re playing well. It’s also just to be there for them and provide whatever support I can. I do that for everybody, not just Jamal Murray. But yeah, that conversation will just kind of remain private.”
In the days since Denver’s Game 2 loss, the Nuggets re-grouped with a dinner at Jeff Green’s Miami home and then held a frank film session that spared nobody.
“And yesterday’s film session wasn’t an emotional film session,” Malone said. “That’s not going to get us anywhere. It was a constructive film session where everybody had a chance to speak up. … I believe that maybe us losing a game at home for the first time in the postseason and playing the way we did, you never want to go through that, but you have to take a negative and make it into a positive, and maybe that’s a wake-up call.”
The Nuggets played the first half like they’d heard the message. With a swarming and urgent defense, the Nuggets limited the Heat to just 39% shooting in establishing a 53-48 halftime lead. Behind Jokic and Murray, whom Butler referred to as Denver’s two-headed snake, the Nuggets regained their offensive rhythm.
Jokic found the sweet spot somewhere between aggressive and unselfish, recording 14 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in the first half. On mismatches, he hunted. When he spotted them elsewhere, he exploited.
“That’s why it transcends scheme,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “… Jokic can manipulate your defense in so many different ways that I can’t even get into. You just have to embrace that competition and find a way to overcome it regardless of how difficult it can be.”
Murray was aggressive from the start. He worked his way inside the paint early to establish his touch before stepping out and draining three 3-pointers in the second quarter. On one cold-blooded look, Murray buried it before the shot clock expired in a demoralizing show of his clutch gene. His 20 points paced Denver’s attack.
The Nuggets built the lead without much production from the rest of Denver’s starters, which only elevated the pressure on their two established stars even more.