MIAMI — On the first possession after Nikola Jokic went to the bench with his fifth foul, the ball nearly went out of bounds.
The interrupted game ended with Aaron Gordon throwing a 3-point desperation from the wing, and Denver’s lead, reduced to just eight just minutes into the fourth quarter, looked more tenuous than ever.
The white-hot Heat crowd roared, sensing a momentary chance to claim their spot in these Finals.
A line-up of Jamal Murray, Jeff Green, Bruce Brown, Christian Braun and Gordon were present and tasked with surviving the dreaded non-Jokic minutes. All that was at stake: a chance to push the Nuggets to the doorstep of their first-ever championship.
But even on that broken first game, the Heat tilted their hand. Murray was unbothered.
“Tonight I felt like they were blitzing every pick-and-roll, just trying to limit my shot attempts, and I just wasn’t fighting it,” said Murray, who finished with 15 points on 5-for-17 shooting but had 12 assists for zero turnovers in a 108-95 Game 4 win over Miami.
“We have a team,” Murray said. “We have a lot of guys who can come in and have an impact on the game, a lot of guys who play with confidence, so I’m not going to fight. Make an easy pass, and that’s why I have four other guys there. … Jeff hit a big three. AG did his thing all night. Bruce (Brown) was hooping. We have a lot of guys who can get in the game and play hoop. You don’t have to fight it. I’m not on a team where I have to force or hold the ball for too long. I will gladly give up if we win games.
A game after Jokic and Murray made NBA history, it was the collective effort of the team that kept them away from a title. It could happen as early as Monday night at the Ball Arena in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
Gordon finished with a team-high 27 points. Brown was down 21, including 11 in the fourth quarter. Jokic scored 23 points in what was far from his most dominant game in the final. But considering the performances they had elsewhere, it was more than enough.
“They were paying so much attention to Jamal that we’re going to take Jamal off the ball, let Bruce make a few plays,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
Leading 86-81 with 8:29 to go, Murray scored the hit of the night. He came around a screen and buried a deep 3-pointer to calm Miami’s growing resurgence. On the Nuggets’ next three baskets, Murray cut, weaved and probed, racking up assists each time.
First, he found Gordon with a lob on a roll to the hoop – a pass honed and perfected by Jokic himself. Then he went through the Miami defense, then sent Green into the corner for a 3-point clutch from the shadow of the Miami bench. The next day, the Nuggets released the ball to kick off a transition chance. Once again it was Murray, on a set, facing Brown.
Along the baseline, Jokic shouted at his team and tried to convey what he was seeing.
“I don’t know what I was saying,” Jokic said. “Probably to get us into action, but don’t have empty possession.”
Murray didn’t let them.
During that crucial five-minute streak, Miami managed to beat Denver just 11-10. The Nuggets defended on a chain, kept players in size and swarmed until Jokic could come back. With Green on Bam Adebayo, Gordon on Jimmy Butler and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope communicating, the Nuggets held water.
Once Jokic returned, the drama was pretty much over. Brown made three more buckets, including a 3-point pullback with 1:22 left in the game. Heat fans had already broadcast to the outs on a 3-point Caldwell-Pope one possession earlier.
At times during the season, the idea that the Nuggets could survive a significant non-Jokic period was far-fetched at best and laughable at worst. But instead of Murray rounding the attack and forcing his shots, he trusted his teammates and imbued their looks.
The Nuggets, as their triumphant Game 4 victory proved, are more than the sum of their stars, Jokic and Murray. It’s a collection of stubborn and proud players who are, collectively, selfless.
“It’s really rare,” Gordon said of finding a locker room like Denver’s. “It’s a blessing. It’s great to play with these guys. These guys are so selfless. They are so passionate about basketball and they understand that you have to keep energy in the ball, and if you play the right way, everything will turn out as it should. We can win. Everyone is loved when you win.
“It was good to know that I could be myself, and that was enough,” he continued. “I didn’t need to be more or less. Yeah, that was cool. I just have to do what the team asks of me, and sometimes it’s scoring, sometimes it’s rebounding, sometimes it’s defending the best player, sometimes it’s making plays. It might be something different every night, but every night I can be myself.
Want more Nuggets news? Sign up to the Nuggets Insider to get all of our NBA analysis.