NBA Finals: Nuggets double down on Nikola Jokić-Jamal Murray two-man game to find their groove

June 09, 2023 in Sports

After losing at home for the first time in more than two months, the Denver Nuggets needed something to lean on when the scene shifted to South Florida for Game 3 of the 2023 NBA Finals. Good thing, then, that they’d spent 438 regular- and postseason games, more than 14,000 total minutes and untold millions of reps building a pretty damn dependable support system to fall back on: the two-man game between supernova center Nikola Jokić and incendiary guard Jamal Murray.

“A lot of guys play with each other,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “I think those two guys play for each other, and off of each other, and they read each other so well.”

Seven years of trust, respect, communication, care and cohesion came to the forefront in Game 3, as the Nuggets got up off the mat and threw a haymaker back at the Heat behind their two-time MVP and their flamethrowing firebrand. Jokić and Murray combined for 66 points, 31 rebounds and 20 assists in an emphatic 109-94 win Wednesday night, wresting home-court advantage back from the Heat through sheer force of will — and, of course, an avalanche of buckets.

“Is this the best basketball that we’ve played?” Jokić said. “I don’t know. As long as we’re winning games, I think.”

While the gentle giant demurred, his head coach was more willing to grant the premise.

“You know, I’ve been with Nikola for eight and Jamal for seven years now, and we’ve had some pretty good moments,” Malone said. “But not in the NBA Finals … by far their greatest performance as a duo in their seven years together.”

It’s pretty hard to argue with that assessment, given the stunning sheer tonnage of both the production — they scored or assisted on 84 of Denver’s 109 points — and the history that the tandem produced, including the first 30-20-10 game in NBA Finals history, and the first time teammates have ever had 30-point triple-doubles in the same game in NBA history, regular or postseason.

Jokić now owns three of the five 30-20-10 playoff performances in NBA history; the other two belong to Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Murray — who, as Malone noted with a laugh after the game, spent two seasons as Denver’s backup shooting guard — now stands alone as the first player ever to log 10 or more assists in his first three Finals appearances.

And the centerpiece of all of it, as has been the case for seven years: Murray with a live dribble, Jokić ambling up to spring him free, a universe of possibilities springing forth and stretching out in all directions around them.

“I’d say it’s a trust and a feel — that’s the best way for me to put it,” Murray said. “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. If he throws it to me, he knows and expects what to see from me.”

After seven years, that knowledge, expectation and understanding go beyond just executing the play.

“He knows the mood I’m in,” Murray said. “The intensity I’m playing with, whether it’s low or high, time and score. And vice-versa — I know when he’s overpassing, 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. I think it’s just a feel and a trust that we’re going to figure it out. And it’s a lot of unselfishness.”

Sometimes, though, the most unselfish thing you can do for the team is to go get yourself a shot.

In Game 2, the Heat were able to throw a bit of a monkey wrench into Denver’s offense by putting Jimmy Butler on Murray and trying as much as possible to play Jokić one-on-one so that he couldn’t spoon-feed his fellow Nuggets high-quality looks. With a couple of days to consider their options, Malone and his coaching staff found an elegant solution for getting Butler off Murray more often, kickstarting Murray’s downhill aggressiveness and giving Jokić more opportunities to make plays in space: by doubling down on what has long been Denver’s bread-and-butter action.

“They got to their two-man early, and it was pretty effective for them tonight,” said Heat guard Gabe Vincent.

Jokić screened for Murray in the pick-and-roll 32 times Wednesday, according to Second Spectrum — their highest number of the series, tied with Game 3 against Phoenix for their highest number of this playoff run and tied for the most they’ve run all season. (They also added 13 dribble handoffs.) Ten of those came in the first quarter; all of them led to a shot, and they produced 12 points.

After that strong start, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra decided to show Denver’s stars a different look.

“I think the game started off with Jamal Murray, and it kind of made Jokić’s game a little bit easier,” said Heat guard Kyle Lowry. “We had to help on Jamal. … He set the tone, and it made things a little bit easier for Jokić.”

“They were kind of trapping Mal a little bit more,” Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. said. “So Mal got off it, found Jok for some easy ones.”

Murray’s play out of those Miami blitzes wasn’t always pristine; they contributed to his seven turnovers, the lone blemish on an otherwise incredible night. More often than not, though, he handled the pressure calmly enough to find an outlet and keep the offense humming. Denver scored one point per chance when the Heat blitzed a Murray-Jokic screen Wednesday, with Murray consistently showing the patience to string the play out and get off the ball:

“If you put two on the ball [against] Jamal, and he finds Nikola in the pocket, something good is usually going to happen,” Malone said. “The midrange shot where he’s almost automatic, Aaron [Gordon] or Jeff [Green] working behind the defense, or spraying out to a 3-point shooter. That’s the type of game that Jamal was having, and he adjusted to how he was being guarded, which is what you need from your starting point guard.”

The Nuggets needed more from their starting point guard in Game 3 than they got in Game 2, and he knew it. Malone said he could tell when speaking to Murray on Tuesday that “he was putting a lot of Game 2 on him,” feeling personally responsible for Denver falling short.

“I felt like I didn’t bring the intensity that the moment called for,” Murray said after Game 3. “Even though I didn’t play terrible, I felt like I could have done a lot more.”

The best thing to help a ballplayer dispense regrets and vanquish demons? Another game.

“Most people that have watched the Nuggets play, when I have a game like that, I’m most likely going to bounce back,” Murray said.

That’s not hyperbole. After scoring 19 on 8-for-21 shooting in Game 4 against the Timberwolves, Denver’s lone loss of the opening round, Murray responded with a game-high 35 to close things out in Game 5. Murray managed only 10 points on 3-for-15 shooting in Game 2 against the Suns; he averaged 26.3 on 47/40/90 shooting over the next four as the Nuggets dispensed with Phoenix in six. And on Wednesday, Murray came out hell-bent for leather, hunting opportunities to attack the paint, compromise the defense and break the coverage that had limited him in Game 2.

That approach produced 20 first-half points, eight trips to the free-throw line and a handful of balloon-puncturing jumpers that seemed to deflate Miami every time it began to string a few positive plays together:

“Huge shots,” said Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “He’s a big shot-maker, and we expect him to take them shots whenever he thinks he has a mismatch. He took them with confidence and knocked them down.”

“That’s what champions do,” Malone said. “That’s what warriors do. They battle back. … He’s a guy that thrives, lives and excels in the moment. Never afraid of it. You can’t say that for a lot of players.”

You can say it about Jokić, who rested just 75 seconds after halftime, rendering every Miami scheme and coverage useless on his way to 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting in the second half. With Jokić feasting, Murray dealing and Miami totally unable to convert, inside or out, Denver steadily built its advantage, pushing the lead as high as 21 early in the fourth quarter and never looking back.

“How many times does [Jokić] have to do that for you guys to believe in his game, or our game, or whatever?” Murray asked. “Like, he’s doing it, making it look so easy. … We’re running out of things to say.”

If Jokić, Murray and the rest of the Nuggets — shout out to Christian Braun — can produce this kind of performance two more times, we’ll have something brand new to say about them. Provided, of course, they don’t leave us speechless in the process.

“It’s greatness, man,” said Gordon. “It’s greatness.”