The Denver Nuggets act like they’ve been here before.
There is an unmistakable poise to the Nuggets, who are only one win away from their first NBA championship and could hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy as early as Monday night when the finals return to Denver for Game 5. Their stars have been starry in their first finals appearance. Their role players have delivered. There hasn’t been a colossal blunder. And even on the cusp of a title, they refuse to change their approach.
“We need to win one more,” two-time MVP Nikola Jokic said.
That’s the Nuggets. Simple. Effective. Blunt.
With Jokic and Jamal Murray leading the way, and with basically a different person stepping up to be the third hero every night so far for the Nuggets, they have the Miami Heat in serious trouble now. They lead the finals 3-1 and with potentially two of the next three games — if needed — in Denver.
“We get an opportunity to play a super competitive game in a great environment,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s going to be an awesome environment. Our guys are built for that. They love that. … Yeah, we understand what the narrative will be, but that’s the way it is with our team.”
History says this series is pretty much over; only one team in NBA history has dug its way out of such a hole in the finals, that being the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors. Heat forward Kevin Love played for that Cleveland team.
“Forget the game,” Love said. “It’s just one possession, one quarter, half by half. Just get it done by any means necessary and we’ll figure the rest out.”
It will be a daunting task.
The Nuggets have held Miami under 100 points three times through the first four games; those were the three Denver wins in the series. They’re 9-1 at home, the only loss coming in Game 2 of this series when Miami pulled off a big rally and survived when a potentially game-tying 3-pointer by Jamal Murray missed at the buzzer.
“This is what I always tell my guys: Winning a championship will be the hardest thing you ever do,” said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, a three-time champion whose 20-year career ends when this series ends. “People only talk about the parade and holding up the trophy. They don’t talk about the journey, the sleepless nights, the frustration, the tears, the pain. They don’t talk about that (stuff). This is all part of that.”
Denver isn’t talking about a parade; some city officials in Dallas were during the 2006 finals when the Mavericks led Miami 2-0, and the Heat won the next four games. The Nuggets aren’t making any such blunders. No blunders at all, really. Every detail is covered, even remembering to run the 24-second shot clock down to the very end on multiple possessions in the final minutes of Game 4, just to shorten the game and limit whatever chance Miami had at making a comeback.
“We’ve done our job. But we’re not celebrating like we’ve done anything yet,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We know we’re going to have to go home and turn off the TV, the radio, don’t read the papers, don’t listen to everybody telling you how great you are. … We stay true to our identity.”
Here’s what that means: The Nuggets have two exceptional players, a two-time MVP in Jokic playing the role of Batman and a still-rising star in Murray happily playing the role of Robin in Denver’s superhero duo.
Jokic — who will never willingly enter a conversation about his incredible stats — is on the cusp of becoming the first player to ever lead the NBA in points, rebounds and assists during a postseason. Murray is the first player to have at least 10 assists in each of his four finals games. They have been the 1-2 punch that has put Miami on the ropes throughout this series.
And then there’s always a third or fourth hero to finish the job. In Game 1, it was Michael Porter Jr. with 14 points and 13 rebounds. In Game 3, it was rookie Christian Braun with 15 points on 7-for-8 shooting. In Game 4, it was Aaron Gordon with a team-high 27 points and Bruce Brown with 21 off the bench.
“That’s just how this team is built,” Gordon said. “We have guys that can step up night in and night out. Sometimes it’s not going to be your night, and sometimes it is going to be your night. This team does a good job finding the people that are kind of in a rhythm and kind of going.”
Jokic gets most of the credit and doesn’t want it. Murray doesn’t get enough credit and doesn’t care about that, either. The other guys, they just take their cues from Jokic and Murray and find a way.
If they do it one more time, they’ll be getting rings in a few months.
“We’re just ready to win a championship,” Murray said. “We have the tools to do it. It’s been on our minds for a while. We’re just locked in. I don’t think you’ve got to overthink it. We’re just dialed in, ready to win.”