Gritty Nuggets stymie Heat in fourth quarter to take commanding 3-1 lead in NBA Finals

Tribune Content Agency

MIAMI – As Stan Kroenke roamed the sidelines before Friday’s Game 4 of the NBA Finals, he issued a prophetic and opportunistic missive.

“Opportunity knocks,” he said, his bold statement matched only by his blue jacket.

The gritty and grimy Denver Nuggets wrestled the Miam Heat to the mat, seizing a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals with their resounding 108-95 win. All that was left was the pin, which could happen as soon as Monday when the series flips back to Denver for Game 5.

There, the Nuggets will have a chance to clinch their first-ever NBA championship.

“We’re not celebrating like we’ve done anything yet,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone.

Nikola Jokic picked up his fifth foul three minutes into the fourth quarter, which preempted the defining sequence of the night. As their MVP shouted and coached from the baseline, the rest of Denver’s resilient group clawed to keep the Heat at bay.

Jamal Murray buried a dagger 3-pointer. Reserve Jeff Green knocked one down, too. Together, as a unit, they put the clamps on Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo and took control of the Finals. Fearless Bruce Brown, who finished with 21 points, attacked the hoop with a championship in sight.

“I knew coming into the league what I could do,” said Brown, his steady confidence a defining trait of his versatile game.

Added Malone: “He’s not afraid.”

Jokic finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds, along with three steals and two blocks. Aaron Gordon had a team-high 27 points, his production and efficiency proving way too much for the Heat’s beleaguered defense to handle. Gordon sunk three of Denver’s 14 3-pointers.

Murray added 15 points and 12 assists, and fans finally headed for the exits after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope drained a 3-pointer with 1:49 left.

“Our guys are locked in, man,” Malone said, crediting his entire team for their effort.

All that was left, after storming to South Beach and seizing the two biggest wins in franchise history, was to finish the job.

Denver spent the first two quarters raining 3-pointers like the torrential downpours that’d shrouded Miami the last two days. By the third quarter, they started hunting the paint. Michael Porter Jr. finally found pay-dirt on two quick baskets inside, and then Jokic and Murray started attacking just like they’d done in Game 3. With impeccable touch and uncanny range, Jokic buried one from the mid-range and then stepped out and canned another deep 3-pointer. His dissection, from all three levels, was unrelenting. When a Murray jumper trickled in near the elbow, a second road win started to feel imminent.

After Adebayo was called for basket interference with 2:07 left in the third quarter, officials felt the basket needed to be leveled. Jokic tried hanging on the rim, twice, to fix it himself, as curious Heat fans didn’t know whether to applaud or cheer. The seven-minute delay afforded Jokic even more rest.

Once play resumed, Gordon continued dominating. He ended the quarter with a corner 3-pointer in front of Miami’s bench that left Heat fans stunned. Denver had an 86-73 lead and was just a quarter away from returning home with a commanding edge.

A 2-1 series lead didn’t mean much to Nuggets coach Malone. Not at this stage and not with these stakes.

“This is a must-win for us,” he said before Friday’s tip-off. “This is the Finals. This can’t be human nature, ‘We came down, got one game, we can relax.’ Each game, each possession, each quarter are way too important. As I told our players, when we got on that plane to come down here, it wasn’t just to get one win. Our mindset is to go out there and take it tonight.”

Malone also didn’t want to hear anything about benching Porter, who’d struggled mightily throughout the first three games of the series.

“Zero discussion about making any changes,” Malone said. “Again, Michael Porter is a big part of our team. We would not be in this position if it wasn’t for him. … As far as him kind of getting back into his groove, I talked to him today about understanding that we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for all the contributions and growth that you’ve shown us throughout this year being healthy. Go out there and play, be aggressive, shoot the ball with confidence and, remember, you’re not a specialist. We don’t bring in specialists.”

The Nuggets played with the moxie befitting of a team trying to make history. In building a 55-51 halftime lead, they rained in seven 3-pointers. Those triples meant more given the slow, steady pace of the game.

Even though none came from Porter, arguably Denver’s best sniper, the rest of his teammates found their range. After Porter missed one and dropped his head into a timeout, teammates Vlatko Cancar and Christian Braun were there to encourage him.

On the court, Jokic, who played through a rolled ankle, and Gordon carried the weight. Jokic buried two 3-pointers, flexing among the most devastating weapons in his arsenal. Not known for his 3-point shooting, Gordon drained two more. Gordon scored 15 points in a dominant second quarter, pummeling Miami with his jumper and his size.

Gordon and Jokic went to half with 16 points each to pace Denver’s attack.

Gordon’s family sat 20 rows up from Denver’s bench. After each basket, they celebrated in unison, a few jubilant fans among a sea of white.