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Saturday, June 10, 2023

Nuggets Never Trail in Second Half, Beat Heat 108-95 to Take 3-1 Lead

Aaron Gordon scored a game-high--and playoff career-high--27 points to pace a balanced scoring attack as the Denver Nuggets defeated the Miami Heat 108-95 to take a 3-1 NBA Finals lead. Gordon shot 11-15 from the field, grabbed seven rebounds, and passed for six assists. The fourth overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft has not just accepted a non-starring role--he is thriving as the third or fourth option who is capable of scoring 20 points or more in any given game. Gordon could be a 20-25 ppg scorer for a team that never wins anything of consequence, but he prefers being a contributor to a championship quality team instead of being a star for an irrelevant team; there are several high scoring NBA players who are sitting at home now who could learn from that example, assuming that they are more interested in winning an NBA title than in accumulating individual statistics and honors.

Nikola Jokic produced 23 points on 8-19 field goal shooting, a game-high 12 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and three blocked shots in what will undoubtedly be characterized as an "off" game or a "quiet" game, which is a tribute to the high standard of excellence that he has set for himself. Bruce Brown scored 21 points on 8-11 field goal shooting in 30 minutes off of the bench. Coach Michael Malone has shortened his bench, yet it seems that each game at least one bench player makes a major contribution. Jamal Murray had a masterful performance despite shooting just 5-17 from the field: he had a game-high 12 assists, and he did not commit a single turnover despite being trapped and blitzed throughout the game. Murray is the first player to have at least 10 assists in each of his first four NBA Finals games.

There may be some people who are surprised that the Nuggets won despite Jokic having "only" four assists, but the reality is that a team's success is rarely connected to an arbitrarily chosen statistic. The Nuggets' offense is remarkably consistent and efficient: they have scored between 104 and 109 points in each NBA Finals game, and they have shot between .494 and .520 from the field in each NBA Finals game--and those team numbers have not varied much even as Jokic's scoring output has ranged between 23 points and 41 points, with his assist totals ranging between four and 14.

The Nuggets won easily despite both Jokic and Murray shooting poorly because Jokic and Murray both had a significant positive impact in other ways; the Nuggets run smart, crisp offensive sets that take advantage of the extra defensive attention that Jokic and Murray draw, and that is why the Nuggets shot well overall despite both of their stars not shooting well. If you just look at boxscore statistics or even "advanced basketball statistics" then you will have trouble understanding and explaining what happened in this game--and you might even erroneously conclude that Gordon is the team's best player (or was the team's best player in game four). The Nuggets' offensive efficiency flows from Jokic and Murray; take them out, and everyone else would have to work much harder to score. Gordon may very well score even more points without Jokic and Murray, but his shooting percentage would be worse (he is a career .472 field goal shooter who has shot .500 or better in each of his seasons with the Nuggets). Murray's 5-17 field goal shooting is not equivalent to a James Harden "concert tour" because Murray took shots within the flow of the game and because Murray played in a way that enabled his teammates to be effective; in contrast, when Harden has a "concert tour" he is dribbling the air out of the ball while running an inefficient offense. It should also be noted that a "concert tour" field goal percentage is an aberration for Murray but a regular playoff occurrence for Harden.

Jimmy Butler had 25 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists in 45 minutes. It may not be fair to ask or expect him to do more, but it is evident that if he is not able to do more then this series will be over soon. Bam Adebayo added 20 points and 11 rebounds, but he shot 8-19 from the field and committed seven turnovers; he has had some excellent moments during this series and he is posting impressive scoring and rebounding numbers--but overall he is being devoured by Jokic's superior size, strength, and skill. Kyle Lowry had an excellent first half to help the Heat keep the score close, and then he went scoreless in 20 second half minutes, which is not surprising for a 37 year old point guard who is barely 6-0 tall; small, aging point guards are typically not leading the charge for championship teams, and it is too much to expect even a six-time All-Star/2019 NBA champion to do so. Lowry finished with 13 points and seven assists.

The Heat outrebounded the Nuggets 37-34 after being destroyed on the boards in game three, but that small advantage was wiped out by larger disadvantages in turnovers committed (15-8) and field goal percentage (.494 versus .449).

This game had a back and forth flow in the first half before the Nuggets took command in the second half. The Nuggets led 18-11 with 2:11 remaining in the first quarter, but the Heat ended the quarter on a 10-2 run, taking a 21-20 lead on a Butler three pointer just before time ran out in the first quarter. The Heat outrebounded the Nuggets 11-7 in the first quarter, and shot .500 from the field while holding the Nuggets to .316 field goal shooting. The momentum shifted shortly after Jokic turned his right ankle while stepping on Max Strus' foot. Jokic limped noticeably after that play, and he briefly went to the locker room to get his foot retaped after the first quarter. 

Jokic returned to action at the 7:50 mark of the second quarter with the score tied 30-30. He hit a deep three pointer on the next possession, and the Nuggets never trailed the rest of the way. Gordon and Jokic led the Nuggets with 16 first half points each. Butler topped the Heat with 14 first half points on 6-9 field goal shooting, and he also had a team-high five first half assists. Lowry made a big impact in the first half with 13 points and four assists. The Heat attacked the paint much more aggressively than they did in game three, and they were rewarded with dunks, layups, and free throws. The Heat won the first half rebounding battle 18-16--but, despite the Heat playing about as well as they can play, the Nuggets enjoyed a 55-51 halftime lead.

Gordon made a nifty one handed bounce pass to Murray for a layup that put Denver up 65-55 at the 7:35 mark of the third quarter. Passing and unselfishness are contagious, and it is clear that the way that Jokic and Murray play has permeated this team. The Nuggets led 86-73 after three quarters, and they appeared to be poised to push that margin to 20 points--but the Heat kept battling, and then Jokic committed his fifth foul at the 9:24 mark of the fourth quarter. The Nuggets led 86-76 as Jokic went to the bench for the next 5:15, but while Jokic sat the Heat only shaved one point off of that margin; the Nuggets were up 96-87 when Jokic returned, and the Nuggets soon pushed that lead to 108-91 before coasting to victory. After the game, Coach Malone conceded that during the regular season the team's non-Jokic minutes often went "haywire," but he proudly noted that this has not been the case during the playoffs and it was not the case in this game.

The Heat are 2-6 since taking a 3-0 Eastern Conference Finals lead versus the Boston Celtics, and--even though they will undoubtedly fight hard until the end--they may have run out of gas after making an improbable run from the Play-In Tournament to the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, the Nuggets look fresh and focused. Their team offense is excellent, and their team defense is better than advertised, and better than it has been in recent memory; the mental lapses and breakdowns that they suffered during game two appear to be an aberration because in the other three Finals games the Nuggets have held the Heat to less than 100 points.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 AM



At Sunday, June 11, 2023 2:15:00 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

Yeah, it looks like Miami’s impressive Cinderella run is about to be slammed shut. The Nuggets were heavy favorites on paper going into the Finals and they have proven their notable superiority in actuality. Miami has just looked absolutely helpless on both sides of the court for extended stretches during this series and it shouldn’t be a surprise because they are facing a team that is just flat-out better in numerous crucial ways.

At Sunday, June 11, 2023 7:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If/when they win this series, how close is Jokic to Pantheon?

At Sunday, June 11, 2023 9:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

As I have discussed in previous articles/comments sections, I am not sure if I should expand the Pantheon or if I should do a new Pantheon ranking from scratch. The original idea for the Pantheon was to select a small group of players who are distinguished even from the 50 Greatest, and the original Pantheon (10 retired players, supplemented with four then-active players who I called "the modern era's finest") fit that bill. Since I created the Pantheon, players such as Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Stephen Curry have emerged as possible Pantheon candidates. Jokic is a potential candidate as well, and a championship would strengthen his Pantheon resume. Elgin Baylor is the only Pantheon member who never won a championship, and most Pantheon members won multiple titles while in or near their prime years.

For those who are not familiar with my Pantheon, here is the complete list (in chronological order):

Bill Russell
Elgin Baylor
Wilt Chamberlain
Oscar Robertson
Jerry West
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Julius Erving
Magic Johnson
Larry Bird
Michael Jordan
Shaquille O'Neal
Tim Duncan
Kobe Bryant
LeBron James

At Sunday, June 11, 2023 8:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I asked re Pantheon, b/c Joker seems to be more unique than other recent players. I would think uniqueness would count for something?

At Monday, June 12, 2023 4:50:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

I believe that every individual within David's Pantheon was distinct in their own right, yet they were often perceived as archetypes for what epitomizes an exceptional player, thereby favoring emerging talents who seemed to possess similar characteristics.

Take Bill Russell as an example; he was a trailblazer in shot-blocking techniques, being the pioneer in elevating off the ground to swat shots. Moreover, his athleticism was such that he could seamlessly participate in a fast-paced, five-man fast break.

Jordan's supremacy in the nineties predetermined talent scouts and team officials on a quest to discover the next 6-foot-6 guard who could soar through the air, and who possessed impeccable fundamentals and a smooth shooting touch. The fact that they primarily unearthed imitators and near-misses did not deter anyone from searching for authentic successors.

Consequently, Nikola Jokic emerges as the latest and greatest singular talent that media and team executives are likely to regard as a blueprint for the development of future big men in the league.

At Monday, June 12, 2023 11:46:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think Kobe was stylistically very similar to MJ, who himself was somewhat stylistically similar to Dr J.

Also, my "unique" comment concerned recent players. E.g., in simplistic terms, I consider Curry to be better-long-range-shooting, worse-defending variation of Piston legend Isiah Thomas. That's just my opinion; but to me they're generally similar in being undersized PGs with amazing ball-handling skills, shooting ability, and overall games. For Joker, more than the others, I struggle to find a comparison. Maybe there are, but I just don't know of them.

Anyhow, perhaps that clarifies my "unique" question

At Monday, June 12, 2023 12:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Few players are truly unique. Most players borrow--consciously or subconsciously--from their predecessors. Dr. J once said that he borrowed something from every player he saw, whether it was blocking shots from Bill Russell or the way that small guards handled the ball.

Jokic reminds me of Larry Bird with Kevin McHale's post moves, or Kevin McHale with Larry Bird's passing and three point shooting. I make those comparisons not based on race, but based on skill set. Jokic is bigger and stronger than Bird or McHale, but the general way that he plays combines great post footwork with great passing ability and the ability to hit the three point shot (though not as well as Bird did). McHale was a much better individual defender than Jokic, and Bird was probably a craftier team defender, though Jokic is improving defensively.

I have heard some people compare Jokic's footwork to Olajuwon's, but Olajuwon was much quicker, much more fluid, and much more explosive athletically. Jokic is a much better passer and outside shooter than Olajuwon was.

We also do not yet know if we are seeing peak Jokic or if he will still improve, nor do we know for how long Jokic will play at an MVP level. Pantheon players tended to play at an MVP level for at least a decade or so. There are great players--including players who won multiple MVPs--who did not sustain MVP level play for a decade or so.


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