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The Denver Nuggets put the Miami Heat in a 3-1 hole with a 108-95 win on Friday night, and they may have also buried the idea of parity in the NBA for the foreseeable future.
The 2022-23 season was defined by the idea that no overwhelming superpower existed. The defending champion Golden State Warriors fell to earth, no team won 60 games and Miami’s elimination of the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks was just one of four first-round series that saw the lower seed advance.
The notion that the next few years would be a free-for-all seemed even more realistic with changes to the CBA that make it harder for big spenders to stay on top. Per Keith Smith of Spotrac, loads of teams are looking at a pivotal offseason and asking themselves “why can’t we win it?” in 2023-24.
The Nuggets may be the answer to that question.
Start with the basics of Denver’s all-hands-on-deck excellence on Friday. Nikola Jokić finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds four assists, three steals and three blocks on what, by his standards, was a mediocre night. Jamal Murray had a dozen assists and Bruce Brown chipped in 21 points off the bench. Denver defended with grit and hit 50 percent of its threes, despite Michael Porter Jr. continuing to struggle from the perimeter.
It was an overpowering effort against an opponent known for not giving in.
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Jimmy has no doubt after going down 3-1 👀 pic.twitter.com/uVz4d9DHmh
Miami isn’t finished yet, and looking past this series is dangerous. But the Nuggets gave us a glimpse of why they should be viewed as more than a down-year champion during a critical five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter on Friday. At the 9:22 mark of the final frame, Nikola Jokić picked up his fifth foul and headed to the bench with Denver holding an 86-76 advantage.
All season, and for several seasons in fact, the Nuggets have struggled to survive without Jokić in the game. Even this year as Denver racked up the most wins in the West, it got outscored by 10.4 points per 100 possessions whenever Jokić hit the pine.
As the two-time MVP watched for five minutes and 15 seconds, Murray drilled a gut-check three, dimed up Aaron Gordon for a deuce and then hit Jeff Green for a corner triple. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stripped Jimmy Butler and triggered a break that resulted in a Bruce Brown layup, assisted, of course, by Murray.
When Jokić returned, Denver still led by nine.
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Some championship plays by Denver’s role players during the Jokic bench minutes.
Those five minutes felt like a flex, as head coach Michael Malone left Jokić on the bench for far longer than felt comfortable. It certainly wasn’t a move Malone made as some sort of preparation for the next phase of Denver’s evolution. He wasn’t risking a stranglehold on the series just to showcase that his team really was more than a bunch of fungible parts orbiting an irreplaceable center.
The Nuggets are still very much in the moment and focused on winning the first title in franchise history. But it was hard not to view that decisive Jokić-less stretch as proof that the Nuggets may rightly view what’s happening now as a beginning. Because if they can hold fast against a desperate Heat team in these circumstances without Jokić, it means they’re capable of climbing another level or two in the years to come.
It means their talent, chemistry and collective fight—with or without their best player—is only growing stronger.
Ohm Youngmisuk @NotoriousOHM
Bruce Brown was massive in 4th, taking advantage of Jamal Murray drawing so much attention and finishing with 21 points. Brown was relentless. Aaron Gordon was in attack mode earlier in game. Nuggets role players played integral part in putting Denver step away from championship
Throw in the trade the Nuggets swung with the Oklahoma City Thunder earlier on Friday, which sent out a 2029 first-round pick in exchange for multiple draft assets that’ll materialize sooner, and it’s clear the Nuggets are positioning themselves to keep building while they’re tearing down the Heat.
Best of luck to other teams who try to follow Denver’s construction plans. Nobody’s going to find the best player in the world at No. 41 in the draft like the Nuggets did. Even if that were possible, emulators would still need to develop homegrown talent like Murray and Michael Porter Jr., trade for their own Aaron Gordon, make the best free-agent signing in the league to match Bruce Brown Jr. and maybe throw in another improbable draft find like Christian Braun.
Every one of those players has contributed throughout the playoffs and particularly in these Finals.
AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Gordon finished Game 4 with a team-high 27 points and a plus-29 plus-minus. Murray teamed with Jokić to play the most dominant version of their league-best two-man game in Game 3 and has quietly been one of the top facilitators in the postseason. His dozen assists and zero turnovers in Game 4 showed there’s no one way to hold him in check.
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In fact, what Murray’s done in these playoffs shows he’s basically who everyone seems to think Jimmy Butler is—a player who turns into an entirely different (and better) version of himself when the stakes are highest.
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Jamal Murray’s career playoff scoring average of 25.4 is 19th all time among players with at least 30 playoff games, tucked neatly between Dominique Wilkins and Dirk Nowitzki.@johnhollinger takes a closer look at Murray’s unprecedented postseason leap.https://t.co/zs2yVFj9HR pic.twitter.com/ghr6L8VOBK
Murray and the rest of Denver’s non-MVP contributors didn’t just hold the fort when Jokić sat during those illuminating five minutes. They also closed out the game and, for all intents and purposes, the series.
Brown hit a tough floater and an acrobatic layup in the late stages as Miami’s resolve waned, and then KCP broke it entirely with a dagger triple to put the Nuggets up by 14 points with 1:49 left in the fourth quarter.
Bruce Brown and KCP hit the daggers in Game 4 🍿 pic.twitter.com/D7KHVzvpBO
This is a relatively young group with no offseason flight risks other than free-agent-to-be Brown. Losing him will hurt, but Braun has looked the part of a defensive game-changer in spot minutes and could contribute much more going forward.
The core of this team will remain intact for years to come, and that should concern the overstuffed and possibly delusional “why can’t we win it?” would-be contenders.
AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
So as we gaze into the distance of the next half-decade or so of NBA competition, we don’t necessarily see the wide-open field of similarly positioned title hopefuls this season suggested was out there. We don’t see a dozen possible title-winners or an impending era of interchangeable equals vying for the crown.
Instead, we see Denver on top and perhaps still rising, propelled upward by a singular superstar and a supporting cast built through the draft, free agency and trades.
We see a dynasty that may have only just begun.