The Denver Nuggets edged closer to their first NBA title on Wednesday with a victory over the Miami Heat, their second in the series, led by stellar performances from their two stars, Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray. Both players set all-time records for points, rebounds and assists.
However, the final 109-94 scoreline, giving Denver a 2-1 lead in the series, didn’t tell the whole story of a clash of two halves. After an evenly balanced first half, Miami’s hopes of securing victory in front of their fans began to fade and then slipped out of their reach.
With three minutes left on the clock, it seemed the Nuggets were on course for victory as the Miami fans dressed in white started to leave the Kaseya Center in their droves. No fan relishes basking in disappointment, but getting stuck in traffic on such a huge game day in a major U.S. city is certainly no laughing matter unless it’s for a good reason.
Their faces were etched in frustration with the two most repeated words of the night trumpeted over the stadium’s public address system: Nikola Jokic, the primary cause of their woes. Besides producing a stellar display, the Nuggets’ Serbian star wrote his name in the history books by becoming the first player to record 30 points, grab 20 rebounds and provide 10 assists in a game in the NBA Finals. Jokic even went a step further and finished with 32 points and 21 rebounds.
If that wasn’t enough, Jamal Murray stepped up again with just nine seconds of play left to grab his 10th rebound under the hoop. This was also the first time two players on the same team had recorded a triple-doubles in a Finals game (in Murray’s case it was 34 points, plus 10 assists and 10 rebounds).
In the press room after the end of the matchup, the ever-modest Serb heaped praise on his teammate: “He’s the leader. The rest of us just follow him.” His coach, Michael Malone, was more emphatic when praising his players to the press. “By a long shot, we’ve seen their best performance as a pair in their seven years together.”
Paradoxically, it was in the three minutes of the exodus that Miami seemed poised to rise from the dead, cutting the deficit to nine points. But the miracle didn’t materialize and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and the fans were left with only one consolation, which was to bring on local icon Udonis Haslem with 20 seconds left before the buzzer. Haslem is retiring at the end of the season, after two decades of dedicated service, and he got a standing ovation as he wrote another chapter of history by becoming the oldest player to appear in the NBA Finals at the age of 42 (he turns 43 this Friday).
Change of script
The evening’s script changed midway through the third quarter, when after a hard-fought first half, Denver pulled clear with a double-digit lead to put daylight between the two sides. The difference crept up to 21 points two and a half minutes into the final quarter, with Spoelstra calling a timeout. The music was cranked up in the stadium, with a booming accelerated version of Mami, qué será lo que quiere el negro, but not even this was enough to restore the fans’ faith in their team, after starting the game with vociferous gusto.
The game had also begun in that same way, with the Heat anxious to prove they were capable of following up their win against the odds in Denver the previous Sunday. The momentum was there to be seized. It was the first time in the postseason that the Nuggets had not headed into Game 3 with a 2-0 lead. It was also the first time the Western Conference outfit had lost at home, after going nine matches without doing so.
The home side’s initial buoyancy lasted about eight minutes. By that point, Jokic was already effortlessly striding through the opposition’s lines like a general with his half-European, confident style. Miami’s rashness and jitters amounted to one missed opportunity after another to extend the slim lead.
Before the game’s momentum shifted, the first quarter ended with both sides evenly matched in terms of both points on the scoreboard and the 10 points racked up by the franchise star men, Jimmy Butler (who finished on 28, compared to Bam Adebayo’s 22) and Jokic. The first celebrity sightings also occurred: NBA legends like Magic Johnson and rappers like J Cole. Even Shakira and Neymar were there, reminding those present, each in their own way, that the biggest sports news of the day in the city was still Leo Messi signing for local soccer team Inter Miami, even if the Heat had managed to upset the Nuggets.
The next showdown between these two sides is on Friday, once again in Miami, where the dream of clinching the fourth title in the Heat’s history (after triumphs in 2006, 2012 and 2013) is still very much alive among the fans “We’ve done well to get this far,” said Big Dan Vainberg shortly before Wednesday’s fixture and at the end of a season when hardly anyone had given Miami a chance.
The stats don’t bode well for the Heat. No eighth-seeded team from the Eastern Conference has ever won a ring. This year, the Heat got into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, but then confounded those who underestimated them by upsetting, against all odds, the Milwaukee Bucks, the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics.
Though the Heat have proven time and again in recent weeks that they should not be written off, the laws of basketball probability dictate that the Nuggets have an 80% chance of success. Previously, 32 teams out of 40 won the third match of the series and eventually went on to claim the championship ring. After Friday, the showdown will head west and then back to Miami. Should the tie go to a seventh game, it will be played on June 18, in Denver.
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