With nine minutes to play in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat, who'd been playing catchup since the opening tip and trailed by 21 points at the start of the fourth, had managed to trim Denver's lead to 10 with an 11-0 run over a quick three-minute burst.
It was the first time in the second half that Miami felt like it might be able to grind its way back into the fight. Another stop and bucket to cut the lead to single digits would've been honest cause for Denver concern. It was, however, never going to get that far.
See, the Nuggets have this guy named Nikola Jokic. Perhaps you've heard of him. Michael Malone doesn't believe enough people talk enough about the two-time MVP, and he's probably right. So for the few of you out there who still aren't completely hip to Jokic's unique brand of dominance, understand that he is, much like a typical superstar, a certified bucket getter. The difference is, he's often not the one actually getting the bucket.
With Miami on its run and Jokic charged with ending it, Jamal Murray runs pick and roll with Jokic. Miami jumps out at Murray, who demanded such attention with a 26-point night, leaving Jokic free on the short roll, where he caught the pass, calmly faced the basket, and found a cutting Jeff Green for an uncontested layup.
Later in the fourth, with a little over two minutes to play, Miami had now cut the lead to nine with one last desperate charge. Again, Denver needed a bucket. They go to Jokic in the soft spot of Miami's zone. He jabs hard downhill, forcing two Miami defenders to cover a cutting Aaron Gordon on the baseline as his gravity simultaneously sucks Gabe Vincent down off Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
In one little step, Jokic consumes the attention of three Heat bodies, so when he casually passes it back out to KCP, Vincent now has to scramble back to close out, making him easy prey for KCP to drive right past for a clean two-dribble pull-up. Bucket.
This is such a fresh approach to the classic superstar hunting the dagger shot. Jokic hunts dagger dimes. He senses the same thing all superstars do, that his team needs a bucket, and that his entire organization depends on him to make certain that bucket gets got. He just looks at the situation, and the court, with an unsullied eye. His vision is clear, both literally and figuratively. Nothing is predetermined. No agenda or ego clouds his judgment. He waits for you to show your hand, then decides when and where to flop the pocket aces he was holding the whole time.
After setting up KCP, Jokic, on the ensuing possession, spotted Aaron Gordon behind the Miami defense and, for the final nail in the coffin, slung a 30-foot dime for yet another point-blank layup.
That would've been Jokic's 15th assist of the night had Gordon not been hacked before he could convert. What a shame. Jokic had to settle for 14 assists, a Finals record for a center as Denver rolled to a 104-93 win and a 1-0 series lead.
Toss in 27 points and 10 rebounds, and Jokic joins Jason Kidd one of two players in history to record a triple-double in his first career Finals game. For those of you not counting at home, Jokic now has nine triple-doubles this postseason. Every other player in the playoffs has combined for three.
"I don't need to shoot," Jokic said afterward. "I know I don't need to score to affect the game, and I think I did a good job today."
You think? The man scored 27 points while only taking 12 shots. Seven of those came in the fourth quarter, meaning he only took five shots through the first three quarters. For some superstars, you might call that passive. Not Jokic. He's being aggressive to score, he just doesn't care if he's the one scoring.
Six of his assists came in the first quarter. He set the tone early that he was going to pick Miami apart. He simply recognizes the right play -- sometimes flashy, sometimes not -- and then makes that play. Gordon had a size mismatch. Jokic detected it early. Fed him repeatedly. Here with the high-low seal:
Then here again with another Gordon seal:
"One thing about Nikola is he takes great satisfaction in making plays for others. He really does. I think he takes more joy in that," Malone told reporters. "I don't think he cares if he scored 27 points or not. He cares that we're up 1-0 [in the series]."
It's true. Jokic doesn't care that he had 27 points on Thursday. But I wouldn't necessarily say he cares that he had 14 assists either. He's a passer at heart, but his overriding principle is to make the right play. When he needs to score, he scores. He averaged 34 points against the Suns. Had 53 in Game 4. He's at over 27 per game for the playoffs with an absolutely obscene 70% true-shooting.
It's very simple with Jokic: You either single cover him and he destroys you in the post, or with his feathery paint shots, or by shooting damn near 50 percent from 3 during these playoffs. Or you double him, in which case he does this:
Doubling Jokic is already -EV because of his 99 awareness, but like we saw in Lakers series: if u send it with whoever guarding Aaron Gordon, he lurks on the opposite block for a reason and is always in perfect position to set a back screen on the corner 3 assignment. Good luck. pic.twitter.com/TZqQ0bpO8Q— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) June 2, 2023
Playoff basketball is about quality shots. Whichever team gets more of them usually wins. Jokic is a cheat code for great shots. He all but guarantees one, either for himself or a teammate, every trip down the floor. He's the epitome of a pick-your-poison dilemma. Passer. Scorer. Doesn't matter. You're dead wither way.
For three years Jokic has been an unsolvable riddle, and the Heat didn't provide any evidence on Thursday that they have some sort of secret antidote buried up their sleeve. Jokic is just too good right now. And by extension, so are the Nuggets.