At halftime, Game 3 between the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat looked like a Finals classic in the making. With both defenses locked in, every point was a struggle. The refs were swallowing their whistles and allowing physicality. And neither team led by more than five at any point in the half.
Forget the 1-versus-8 seedings that separate the two finalists. After splitting the series’ first two games in Denver and then staying within striking distance of each other for 24 minutes, the Nuggets and Heat appeared to be evenly matched. Game 3—and perhaps the entire championship round—looked poised to go down to the wire.
And then the Nuggets so thoroughly dominated the second half that Heat player-coach-legend Udonis Haslem got off the bench in garbage time of a 109-94 Nuggets win. Behind a historically dominant game from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, Denver silenced the Heat fans, sent them home early, and demonstrated that there might actually be a difference between a no. 1 seed and a no. 8—even a wonderfully aberrant no. 8 like the Heat. Now, forget the post–Game 2 fretting: The favorite has regained home-court advantage and broader control of these Finals.
Game 3 proved to be a battle of the star duos, as neither set of role players—with one notable, late exception—scored well. Until midway through the fourth quarter, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo were the only Heat players with double-digit points, as Gabe Vincent (2-for-10 from the field) and Max Strus (1-for-7) lost the shooting touch from Miami’s Game 2 win.
And for Denver, while Aaron Gordon had a solid all-around game, with 11 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists, Michael Porter Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Bruce Brown all made just one field goal apiece. Porter suffered the worst performance of the bunch, scoring only two points on 1-for-7 shooting to drop his accuracy in the series to a ghastly 26 percent. He was also responsible for several defensive lapses, just as in Game 2, and he didn’t get off the bench in the fourth quarter.
In the absence of role player contributions, Butler and Adebayo combined for 50 points to lead Miami—which would seem impressive, except when compared to the extraordinary exploits of Jokic and Murray, who combined for a whopping 66 points, 31 rebounds, and 20 assists and became the first teammates in NBA history, regular season or playoffs, to each record a 30-point triple-double in the same game.
That statistic bears repeating given its absurd uniqueness: Jokic (32 points, 21 rebounds, and 10 assists) and Murray (34 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists) both recorded 30-point triple-doubles in the same game. No other duo has ever done that before. And Jokic and Murray pulled off the unprecedented trick to push their team just two wins away from its first NBA title.
They weren’t done making history with just that one stat, though. Jokic also became the first player in Finals history with a 30-20-10 stat line. And this game provided the third 30-20-10 stat line of his overall postseason career, which is one more than every other player in NBA history combined.
After the Heat stifled Jokic’s passing in Game 2, when he posted just four assists, and stymied Murray’s scoring by having Butler defend the Denver point guard, the Nuggets’ stars responded in force in Game 3. Some of those adjustments were tactical, such as Jokic setting more angled screens for Murray to create better driving lanes. Others were just the result of superior shotmaking from two of the best offensive players—and best playoff performers—in the NBA; both Jokic and Murray shot better than 50 percent from the field.
Even with Butler and Adebayo—two of the NBA’s best defenders—playing on the ball, the Heat couldn’t slow Denver’s star scorers in the second half. The Nuggets romped even though Miami committed only four turnovers, thereby cutting off transition opportunities. They romped even though the Heat didn’t foul much until the end of the game, and they romped even though they shot just 5-for-18 from distance (28 percent)—with Jokic and Murray, naturally, combining for four of the five makes.
Gordon helped a bit. So did improved defensive activity, a 58-33 rebounding advantage, and a timely breakout from rookie reserve Christian Braun, who took advantage of the defensive attention Miami was forced to throw at Jokic and Murray and scored 15 points, all on dunks and layups. (With that same energy and defensive effort, Braun also sparked the Nuggets’ rally with Jokic off the floor in the second quarter of Game 2. He might have earned more of Porter’s playing time going forward.)
But Denver won because Jokic and Murray transformed, almost by themselves, a tight contest into a blowout. According to ESPN’s win probability model, Denver had a 95 percent chance or better to win for the entire fourth quarter. Jokic and Murray propelled Denver to a double-digit lead, and they ensured that Denver kept that lead with timely makes to prevent another Heat comeback.
Game 3 looked like it would be a memorable Finals game because it would be close in the final seconds. Instead, it turned out to be memorable for an entirely different reason: because on the biggest stage, it hosted one of the best two-man performances in NBA history.