NBA Finals: Nuggets Game 4 Victory Was a Championship Effort From a Championship Team
Pictured: Bruce Brown (11), Jamal Murray (27), Nikola Jokic (15), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) and Aaron Gordon (50). (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
The Denver Nuggets are on the brink of their first ever championship.
And this time, they did it without their MVP.
The scrappy Heat fought and clawed all night, the crowd roared and crested, and Miami made its usual late push with an 8-0 run to open the fourth quarter. The Heat cut Denver's lead to five as Nikola Jokic sat on the bench watching.
And then the Nuggets — the other Nuggets — slammed the door shut, perhaps for good, as Denver held on, then pulled away to win, 108-95.
Denver is up 3-1 and as short as -10000 to win the NBA Finals, all but a fait accompli. But the story of Game 4, for once, was not Jokic, or even Jamal Murray.
Game 4 was about the other guys on Denver's roster. It was a championship effort from a championship team.
A Rare Off Night for Jokic and Murray
Jokic wasn't bad, but he certainly wasn't himself. He finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and just four assists — and we've heard all series how poor Denver's record is when Jokic isn't getting his dimes.
Jokic was an uncharacteristic 8-of-19 from the field in Game 4, repeatedly missing the shots at the rim he's been softly dropping in throughout the series. He hit a trio of 3s, but was just 5-of-12 on 2s.
It wasn't an efficient night from Murray either. He scored only 15 points and couldn't get his shot to fall, finishing just 5-of-17 from the field and an ugly 3-of-14 on 2s.
The duo that had dominated the Finals and almost single-handedly (double-handedly?) won Game 3 wasn't finding its usual rhythm, but Jokic and Murray did find ways to impact the game.
For the second straight game, Jokic made a huge impact on that other end. He defended the rim with three blocks and three steals. A man maligned for his defense is now leading the NBA Finals in blocked shots.
Murray continued to rack up assists. He had 12 and now leads the series by double digits. This time, his teammates finally hit the 3s he set them up for. Murray is the first player in Finals history to record double-digit assists in each of the first four games.
Jokic and Murray combined to score 38 points on 36 shots. That's the sort of inefficiency Denver had reduced Miami's two stars to in Game 3, which resulted in a Heat loss when Miami's other guys didn't come through.
But that was the difference in Game 4 — Denver's other guys won the day.
Denver's Championship Roster Came Through When It Mattered Most
Game 4 might someday be called the Aaron Gordon game.
Or maybe the Bruce Brown game.
You could even argue about moments and efforts from Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Perhaps we'll simply remember Game 4 as the game Denver showed it was a championship team.
The Nuggets got off to a sluggish start and trailed 21-20 after Miami ended the first quarter with a late 3. The 20 points matched Denver's lowest-scoring quarter of this series.
That's when Gordon detonated. He hit a 3 to open the second quarter, then hit another jumper on the next possession. He drilled another 3 a minute later, then attacked with the same size advantage he used to dominate early in Game 1.
Gordon finished with 15 in the second quarter as the Nuggets poured in 35, their highest-scoring quarter of the Finals. He went on to lead all players in scoring with 27 — he was +10000 to do so — and added six rebounds and six assists.
Porter Jr. still can't buy a jump shot, but fought hard and attacked with his size. Repeatedly, Porter Jr. got into the paint and found good looks at the rim. He didn't make all of those, but he battled for 11 points.
Denver pushed its lead from four at the half to 13 midway through the third quarter, then went cold as the Heat cut the lead to six with a 7-0 run.
Then it was Brown's turn.
Brown made a driving layup to end the drought, then drained a 3 to put Denver back up double digits. Then, back to Gordon — a tip-in, an alley-oop finish and another 3 to end the quarter.
Denver headed to the fourth up 13 and looked set to wrap things up, but the Zombie Heat don't die. Miami opened the quarter on an 8-0 run, during which disaster struck. Jokic picked up his fourth and fifth fouls in a 17-second span and headed to the bench.
Jokic left the game with Denver up 86-76 and 9:24 left. He didn't return until 4:09 remained.
All season, Denver has been plagued by its non-Jokic minutes. All playoffs, opponents have battled to steal points in those precious few minutes while the MVP sits and watched.
This was Miami's chance — maybe its last one — to battle back.
With the lead down to five, the closest it had been since nearly halftime, Murray drained a long 3, then assisted on a Gordon layup and a Jeff Green 3 to push the lead back to nine.
And then it was Brown's time again.
Brown hit another shot, then got to the line for a point. A minute later, he nailed a 15-foot pull-up and added an and-one, then got to the rim for another finish. Jokic came back in, but it hardly mattered.
Denver's other guys were winning the day.
Here was Brown, a former second-round pick point guard who converted to a small-ball 6-foot-4 "big" to save his career, a guy who could never find his spot in an NBA rotation, having his moment.
Here was Gordon, formerly the top option in Orlando, now the fourth option in Denver, asked to do all the little things and give away every last bit of spotlight.
Here was Porter Jr., once a potential No. 1 pick, now robbed of his very ability to hit the jumper he'd hit all his life, scrapping and clawing for any chance to put the ball in the hoop.
And here was Caldwell-Pope, a key title cog just three years ago with the Lakers, the perfect Denver role player who the team targeted in the offseason and added as the final piece of its starting five, drilling a dagger 3 to stun a silenced crowd.
This is what makes a champion — not just the stars, but the other guys.
Denver played without its MVP for over five minutes of the fourth quarter, against a rabid crowd and a desperate Heat team, and ceded only one point off its lead.
Murray and Jokic couldn’t buy a shot, but everyone else on Denver’s roster combined to hit 17-of-25 of their 2s, a ridiculous 68%. Denver's "others" hit half of their 18 3s, going 26-of-43 from the field to score 70 points, a bombastic, jaw-dropping, championship-level 1.63 points per shot.
Caldwell-Pope added three steals and two blocks, a key piece of a Nuggets defense that's clamped down on Miami's "others." Gabe Vincent and Max Strus combined for two points and are just 4-for-27 for 11 points over the past two games.
All series long we've heard about Miami's undrafted guys and Heat Culture.
This time, Nuggets Culture won the day and put Denver on the brink of a championship.