DENVER—Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets were facing some questions going into their first National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals, and their answers came in resounding fashion.
No, a week and a half off didn’t hurt them.
And no, the NBA’s biggest stage isn’t too big, either.
Jokic got a triple-double in his finals debut, Jamal Murray scored 26 points and the Nuggets had little trouble with the cold-shooting Miami Heat on the way to a 104-93 win in Game 1 on Thursday night.
“I think that’s what the beauty of this team is,” Murray said. “We have so many different weapons and so many different looks. You’ve got to guard everybody…. Free-flowing, and it’s a lot of fun.”
The Heat had been 3-0 in openers so far in these playoffs, all on the road, but Denver is still unbeaten at home. Game 1 winners in the finals go on to win the title nearly 70 percent of the time.
“That was one of my last messages to the group before our game,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I reminded our group, if they didn’t know, that Miami went into Milwaukee and won Game 1. They went into the Garden in New York City and won Game 1. They won Game 1 up in Boston. So, we did not want them coming in here taking control of the series on our court.”
Jokic was the one in control. The two-time NBA MVP finished with 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds for the Nuggets, who waited 47 years to make the finals and didn’t disappoint.
“The most important thing is to win a game,” Jokic said after his ninth triple-double of this year’s playoffs—his sixth in his last seven games. “I’m trying to win a game in any possible way.”
Aaron Gordon added 16 points and Michael Porter Jr. scored 14 for Denver, which trailed for all of 34 seconds and eventually led by as many as 24.
Bam Adebayo finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds for Miami, which shot 41% for the game—33% from three-point range. Gabe Vincent scored 19, Haywood Highsmith had 18 and Jimmy Butler added 13 for the Heat.
Miami was 2 for 2 from the foul line—a night like none other in NBA playoff history.
It tied the fewest free throws ever made in a playoff game, broke the record for fewest attempts from the line in a playoff game—the previous record was three—and set NBA Finals records for fewest free throws made and attempted. The Los Angeles Lakers had the previous marks there, going 3 for 5 from the line against Philadelphia on May 26, 1983.
“We’ve got to attack the rim a lot more, myself included,” Butler said.
Added Adebayo, tongue firmly in cheek: “We made history.”
Game 2 is in Denver on Sunday night.
Miami opened the fourth quarter on an 11-0 run, cutting an 84-63 deficit to start the final period down to 84-74. The Heat actually got within nine on a three-pointer by Highsmith with 2:34 left, but no closer and there wasn’t any doubt, either.
“It’s a long series,” Vincent said. “First to four wins. Adjustments will be made. And we will learn from this loss.”
Malone gave his team a pop quiz in shootaround Thursday morning, peppering them with questions about the game plan and what had to be done in the most important game to date in franchise history.
They had all the answers then. Had them all at game time, too. They were the team with minimal NBA Finals experience, only two players having been to the title round before, and yet they looked right at home before the home crowd in Game 1.
“We were ready,” Denver guard Bruce Brown said.
Jokic became the second player in the last 25 years—LeBron James was the other, in 2017—to have 10 assists by halftime of a finals game. He had 10 points and 10 assists by the break, and Denver was up 59-42 after the first two quarters—with Jokic taking only three shots.
“I don’t need to shoot and I know I don’t need to score to affect the game,” Jokic said.
Meanwhile, the Heat just couldn’t shoot. At all. Or at least, not until Denver was too far ahead to catch.
Caleb Martin, who narrowly missed out on winning the MVP award of the Eastern Conference finals, was 1 for 7. And Max Strus was 0 for 10, 0 for nine on three-pointers, and became just the second player in the last 45 years to take that many shots without a make in a finals game.
The other, somewhat surprisingly: Ray Allen, a past Heat finals hero who was 0 for 13 for Boston against the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010.
“I didn’t even look at the box score yet, but like I said, I think the disposition, the efforts were more appropriate in the second half,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But that’s not enough. It has to be for a full game, and you also have to make some plays when you’re beat.”
Image credits: AP