DENVER — His postgame interview finished, Nikola Jokić made his way towards a tunnel lined with fans hellbent on welcoming him there. One last M-V-P chant for the two-time winner. One last roar. After watching the seven-foot Serbian pick apart Miami’s defense, watching him spin, twist and slip his way to another triple-double, watching the Nuggets sprint to a largely drama-free 104-93 Game 1 win, a swarm of gold-clad supporters packed against the Ball Arena railings to let Colorado’s homegrown superstar know how much they appreciated him.
One game, one win but in dropping Miami into an 0–1 hole you had to wonder if this was where the Heat’s Cinderella season would end. This was the game Miami could win, could steal. Denver was off for 10 days after breezing past the Lakers, the Heat razor sharp after a seven-game series with Boston. Before the game, Michael Malone issued a warning: Miami had gone into Milwaukee, New York and Boston and taken the first game of those series. Said Malone, “We did not want them coming in here taking control of the series on our court.”
They didn’t. Aaron Gordon set the tone early. Entering the series, Gordon was expected to be Denver’s primary deterrent to Jimmy Butler, and he was, forcing Butler into more shots (14) than points (13) and, for the plus/minus fans out there, a team-low -17. It was Gordon’s offense, though, that carried Denver early. With Miami opting for a switching defense, Gordon took advantage, scoring 12 points in the first quarter, powering the Nuggets to a nine-point cushion.
From there he had plenty of help. Denver’s offense is as selfless as it is surgical. Jamal Murray scored 26 points. Michael Porter Jr. chipped in 14. Off the bench, Bruce Brown added 10. Of the Nuggets’ 40 made shots, 29 of them came off an assist.
“We're just reading the game,” said Murray. “If they take the pocket away, we're looking somewhere else. If they take me away, then we're looking somewhere else. We're just trying to find the open man, find the best shot, find the mismatch. I think we do that throughout the game.”
“It's hard to guard everybody, instead of just one or two guys. We make you have to be locked in on defense throughout the game. I think tonight was just a great example of it could be anybody's night and anybody's quarter, maybe not your quarter. That's just Nuggets basketball.”
Porter Jr.’s impact went beyond scoring. He collected 13 rebounds. He blocked two shots. He was part of the Denver defensive effort that limited Caleb Martin to three points and held Max Strus scoreless. “Even when he's not shooting the ball well,” said Murray, “he's impacting the game in different ways.” Added Malone, “I think we're past the point of praising Michael when he has a good defensive game.”
Then there’s Jokić. Miami has succeeded in these playoffs by confounding opponents with junk defenses, but none of these opponents were Denver and none of them had Jokić, who spent most of his 40 minutes dissecting the Heat’s attempts to confuse him. He had four points in the first quarter … but handed out six assists. He had 10 at the half … but had already racked up a double-double. In the fourth quarter, when Miami briefly cut the lead to single digits, Jokić responded with 12 points to put the game out of reach.
Jokić has answered every criticism in these playoffs, about his offense (not stat padded), his defense (not as bad as many think), about his ability to lead a team deep in the playoffs. There’s nothing forced about Jokić’s game, just a natural instinct to make the right play every time.
“Nikola never tries to impose his will or force things that aren't there,” Malone said. “He's going to read the game. He's going to make the right play. Most importantly he's going to make every one of his teammates better.”
Said Jokić, “That's how I learned to play basketball, and I think it's really nice [way] to play. It's really hard to guard when you don't know who's going to attack and how to defend when everybody is moving, everybody is doing something. I think it's a really nice brand of basketball that we have, and everybody buys in.”
Indeed, everyone in Denver has bought in. Everyone is on the same page. This season, this series is a culmination of years of work, from developing Jokić from a doughy, second-round pick into the NBA’s most dominant player, to easing Murray and Porter Jr. back from injuries, to acquiring Bruce Brown and Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, key reserves who have given the Nuggets a defensive identity. They have, Malone said, “an inner belief and a confidence that they have in themselves and their teammates, and they go out there and continue to show and prove every single night.”
They did on Thursday. Three more times and Denver will have an NBA title.