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Nuggets crush Heat in NBA Finals Game 1 to lay down marker in Ball Arena fortress

Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray combined for 53 points in an offensive showcase by the Western Conference champions, playing their first Finals series in 47 years

NBA Finals
Jimmy Butler grabs a rebound off Nikola Jokic in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.Jack Dempsey (AP)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

Denver took a 1-0 series lead in the NBA Finals opener at the Ball Arena with a 104-93 victory over Miami. The championship series was always going to be an uphill struggle for the Heat, who are only the second eight-seeded team in league history to contest the Larry O’Brien trophy after the New York Knicks in 1999. Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets displayed their power at home, in a city that has yet to celebrate an NBA Championship title but where Denver have proven virtually unbeatable. The Serbian star, after a quiet start, ended the game with a triple double: 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds. Jamal Murray racked up 26 points and 10 assists. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, widely regarded as the canniest tactician in the NBA, will have to make adjustments for Game 2, which will be played in Denver on Sunday.

The big question before the series started was: what can the Heat do to stop Jokic? The answer was provided in the first few minutes on Thursday. It became clear that Miami’s defense could nullify the Serbian star, if they put their minds to it. The Joker, as Jokic is known, made only one shot in the first 12 minutes, a pair of free throws after a foul. His first basket came seconds before the end of the first quarter. Despite this modest start, Jokic went on to record his ninth triple-double of the playoffs. Together, Murray and Jokic joined a select group of players to score over 25 points and make at least 10 shots in their NBA Finals debut. The other two are Michael Jordan and Russell Westbrook.

Denver laid down an early reminder of why they dominated the Western Conference during the regular season. Ball Stadium is a fortress. Thursday’s game was their 50th of the season on home turf and they have only lost seven of those. The locals are fond of pointing out this is the highest stadium in the league, at 1,600 meters above sea level. When Miami took the court, Denver reminded them that there is less oxygen here.

Jokic shot sparingly during the early part of the game, but he reminded the Heat that he has been adhering to Magic Johnson’s passing philosophy for many years. He had 10 assists in the first half. In the second quarter, while practically under the basket, Jokic threw the ball to the other end of the court to find Bruce Brown, who scored a three-pointer. “Passing makes two people happy. Scoring only makes one person happy,” Jokic said a few years ago, quoting the Lakers’ legendary No. 32. After shining once again, the Nuggets star looked relaxed. He had not seen action for nine days, since Denver completed a series sweep of LeBron James and the Lakers. “I enjoyed it,” the two-time MVP told reporters of his brief layoff. “I was in the pool with my family, you can see I’m a little sunburned.”

Bam Adebayo
Miami's Bam Adebayo attacks the basket against the Nuggets' Aaron Gordon. Jack Dempsey (AP)

He also enjoyed himself on the court, where Bam Adebayo was tasked with defending against him. At times, the Heat center had the help of a teammate, which left some opponents open. Aaron Gordon took advantage of the double guard set up by Spoelstra. The power forward had no problem attacking the basket from the paint when he was free, scoring 16 points, 14 of them in the first half. It was Gordon’s best return since the 22 he scored during the Lakers’ shutout. Michael Porter Jr. also recorded a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds.

Denver’s disciplined defense also put Miami in trouble. Shots from the field was the Heat’s strategy but in the first half they made only four of 17 attempts. The visitors improved in the second half, converting 33% of 39 attempts with 13 three-pointers. Denver, on the other hand, made only eight of 27 (29%).

By halftime, four of the eight Nuggets players used were in double digits. For Miami, only Adebayo had scored more than 10 points. The two-time All-Star became the Heat’s offensive engine, ending the game with 26 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists. Jimmy Butler, who had been such a vital cog in Miami’s run to the finals, managed only 13 points in his least productive game of the playoffs. Point guard Max Strus was held to zero after 10 shots in 21 minutes of play and Caleb Martin managed just three points in 24 minutes. Both players had been decisive in seeing off the Celtics in the previous round but fell short in Colorado, as did Duncan Robinson, who landed two of 11 attempts. Among the adjustments made by Spoelstra was to hand more game time to Kyle Lowry, an experienced veteran and a championship winner with Toronto in 2019, who was able to lend the offense a spark with 11 points.

The gap between the hosts and the visitors widened quarter by quarter. After the first, Denver led by nine points. By halftime it was 17. By the end of the third period the home team had stretched it to 21, allowing the Nuggets to take their foot off the gas in fourth. Miami cut the deficit with the help of Haywood Highsmith, who came off the bench and scored 12 points, but by then Denver had done their job.

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