- Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.
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MIAMI — When Nikola Jokic was forced out of the game with his fifth foul with over nine minutes remaining in Game 4, the Denver Nuggets were staring at the most pivotal stretch they would ever play without their two-time MVP.
Head coach Michael Malone described the typical non-Jokic minutes for the Nuggets as “a crapshoot,” putting his hands over his face and pretending to peek through his fingers to describe how precarious those moments have been this season.
But on Friday, the Nuggets turned what could have been the longest five-plus minutes of their season into one that put the franchise a victory away from its first NBA championship.
With Jokic watching for a five-minute, 15-second stretch, Jamal Murray orchestrated the Nuggets’ offense. He stymied any double teams that came his way, setting up teammates for key baskets as the Nuggets fended off every Miami Heat challenge to win 108-95, taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
Murray has drawn so much attention for his scoring in the postseason. But on Friday, he scored just 15 points on 5-for-17 shooting but had 12 assists with no turnovers.
“This is four rounds now — Minnesota, Phoenix, [the Lakers] and now Miami — where our bench overall has done a really nice job. You know all season long, it was like oh, the non-Nikola minutes, kind of a crapshoot. You’re watching the game like this sometimes,” Malone said, shielding his eyes with his hands.
He added: “Our offense may not be as beautiful as it is with Nikola, but the five guys that are out there are defending, and that’s the key to that group playing well.”
Much of Game 4 was played at Miami’s preferred pace. It was a low-scoring game, and then Jokic was forced to sit with 9:24 remaining. It was all Miami could have asked for in the fourth.
The Heat open the fourth with an 8-0 run to get within 86-81 with 8:42 to go. But with Jokic, who had 23 points and 12 rebounds in 37 minutes, watching, Murray buried a 3.
Then he hit Aaron Gordon, who had his best game of the Finals with 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists, for a layup inside. When Miami got within six, Murray found Jeff Green in the corner for a 3. Later, Murray assisted Bruce Brown — who took advantage of Miami trying to slow down Murray with double teams and scored 11 points in the fourth quarter — for a driving layup.
By the time Malone put Jokic back in with 4:09 remaining, the Nuggets had a 96-87 lead. They went on to outscore Miami 12-4 to push their advantage to 17 with 1:21 remaining.
“It’s still one win,” Jokic said, trying to keep his team focused. “We need to win one more. I like that we didn’t relax. We didn’t get comfortable. We were still desperate. We still want it. That’s what makes me happy, that guys didn’t relax.”
In the regular season, the Nuggets were outscored by 367 points when Jokic was on the bench, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
But Murray, who has had 10 or more assists in each of his four Finals games, refused to let Denver wilt when Miami was at its most aggressive.
“He’s going to find a way to impact the game,” Malone said. “And the most impressive thing for me was he had 15 points tonight, and he was 5-of-17 from the field. But 12 assists and zero turnovers, and just kind of, all right, they’re putting two on me, let me make the right play. He did not get bored with making the right play. He did not say, ‘I’m going to save us and try to carry the team.’
“He just read the defense, made the right play, and trusted. That’s a big part of our culture is trusting one another. I thought Jamal’s trusting his teammates tonight was just at such a high level.”
Jokic, who tweaked his ankle early in the game but kept playing, has repeatedly said the Nuggets are following Murray’s lead this postseason.
“I think that’s where you see the growth, and maturity in his game,” Jokic said of Murray’s playmaking. “I think he was amazing today. Of course, some nights you miss, some nights you make. But he’s our leader, and we are following him.”
Now, the Nuggets head back to Denver, where they look to make up for their first home postseason loss in Game 2 to the Heat with a championship-clinching win in Game 5.
“We’re just focused, dialed in, and ready to do this thing,” Murray said.
He added: “We’re just ready to win a championship. 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.”
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