Nuggets handle the Heat again, take 3-1 NBA Finals lead

Nuggets handle the Heat again, take 3-1 NBA Finals lead

MIAMI — Aaron Gordon spent the first six-plus seasons of his career toiling in anonymity and the next 18 months stuck in purgatory.

The athletic forward was a top-five draft pick, but he wasn’t quite talented enough to lift the Orlando Magic out of its losing ways. And after a badly needed trade to the Denver Nuggets in 2021, Gordon’s first chance at a deep postseason run was put on hold by Jamal Murray’s lengthy recovery from a knee injury. But nine long years of patience paid off in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Friday as Gordon put his Slam Dunk Contest leaping ability and improved shooting to good use in Denver’s 108-95 victory over the Miami Heat at Kaseya Center.

With Nikola Jokic battling an ankle injury and foul trouble and Murray struggling to create open shots in a grinding contest, Gordon tallied a postseason career-high 27 points and added seven rebounds and six assists to lift the Nuggets to a 3-1 series lead. Denver can clinch its first NBA championship with a win in Monday’s Game 5 at Ball Arena.

“That’s just how this team is built,” Gordon said. “We have guys who can step up night in and night out. This team does a great job of finding the guys who are in a rhythm. I just want to be great for my teammates.”

While Jokic and Murray have carried the Nuggets against the Heat, Gordon’s exceptional night was a reminder that they rode into the Finals on the strength of their balanced attack. Though he has been cast as a defensive stopper and a tertiary threat on offense since his move to Denver, Gordon previously functioned as a go-to scorer and lead playmaker during his Orlando days.

The 27-year-old forward dusted off those skills time and again in Game 4, picking up the slack for his star teammates, knifing to the hoop for physical layups and hitting a pair of three-pointers during a key second-quarter sequence.

“That’s why we got him,” Murray said. “He’s a dog. He’s strong. He’s physical. He’s tough. He’s chill. He brings everybody together off the court. He’s a selfless player. He’s been solid this whole playoffs. He just wants to win, and we’re all helping each other reach our goals.”

Brewer: The Denver Nuggets have passed all the tests. It’s time to crown them.

As Denver stretched its lead into double digits for the first time in the third quarter, he converted a reverse lob finish on a pass from Jokic and drilled a corner three-pointer.

“Joker is such a floor general, and he has such a high IQ,” Gordon said. “He sees plays steps ahead. He’s reading the defense before he’s even catching the ball. I’m just playing in the dunker’s spot, and it’s putting that low [defender] in a difficult position. Jokic just makes the right play every time.”

Then, after Jokic picked up his fifth foul with more than nine minutes remaining while battling for position with Heat center Bam Adebayo, Gordon’s stabilizing presence helped Denver avert a late-game collapse and a tied series.

As Jokic watched from the sideline, Gordon set up a Murray three-pointer, finished a layup and then led a pretty three-on-one fast break to stave off the Heat’s comeback bid. The Nuggets led by 10 points when Jokic checked out, and they still led by nine when he checked back into the game more than five minutes later. Remarkably, Denver outscored Miami by 29 points in Gordon’s 42 minutes on the floor.

“All season long, the non-Nikola minutes have been kind of a crapshoot,” Nuggets Coach Michael Malone said. “You’re watching the games [with your eyes closed] sometimes. Maybe our offense might not be as beautiful without Nikola, but all five guys are defending. That’s the key to that group playing well.”

Jokic, usually so reluctant to show his emotions, excitedly slapped the floor with a towel as Denver’s supporting cast helped close out the hard-fought win. He had given the Nuggets a scare by rolling his right ankle late in the first quarter, but he returned in short order and finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. Murray added 15 points and 12 assists.

“We need to win one more,” said Jokic, who played 37 minutes and didn’t express any concern about his ankle injury. “I like that we didn’t relax. We didn’t get comfortable. We were still desperate. That’s what makes me happy.”

Brewer: We knew Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray were great. Now they look unstoppable.

Miami, its long shot upset bid now hanging by a thread, managed just 11 points in the game’s first 10 minutes, and it slowly saw its sources of reliable offense dwindle. Jimmy Butler turned in his most energetic performance of the series, finishing with a team-high 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, but he never found a way to get Miami’s offense fully on track.

With its shooters struggling for the second straight contest, the Heat turned to Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love for triage contributions, gladly welcoming a banked three-pointer from each veteran. Lowry went deep into his bag of tricks in the first half — leaning into contact, threading heady passes — and Love scored nine straight points for Miami to prevent Denver from blowing open the game midway through the third quarter.

Even so, Denver held Miami to under 100 points for the third time in this series. Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra chalked up some his team’s offensive struggles in Game 4 to the Nuggets’ ability to force turnovers and create deflections during Miami’s drives to the hoop.

“It’s not like we had 25 turnovers,” Spoelstra said. “Our turnovers just led to scores and were deflating going the other way. I told the guys, ‘Feel whatever you want to feel tonight.’ I don’t think anybody will sleep tonight. All we’re going to focus on is getting this thing back to Miami. It’s going to be a gnarly Game 5 in Denver.”

As Miami mostly came up empty in its search for steady scoring, Denver compensated for Jokic’s rare off night with hard-nosed defense and strong play from Gordon and Bruce Brown. The backup guard scored 11 of his 21 points off the bench in the fourth quarter to help seal the win.

When it came time to deliver the dagger with just under two minutes left in the game, Gordon pushed the ball up the court after a Miami turnover, calmly waiting for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to come free to his right. Gordon capped his career night with an on-target pass, and Caldwell-Pope held up his end of the bargain to send Miami to the brink of elimination.

“We’re just ready to win the championship,” Murray said. “We’ve got the tools to do it. It’s been on our minds for a while.”

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