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The Nuggets Proved Their Championship Mettle With Their MVP off the Floor

When Nikola Jokic went to the bench with foul trouble in the fourth quarter of Game 4, Denver’s role players kept their poise, kept the lead, and brought the Nuggets to the brink of the first title in franchise history

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For this entire season—for multiple seasons, really—the Denver Nuggets wilted when Nikola Jokic went to the bench. Some drop-off is natural when a two-time MVP and now-definitive best player in the world rests. But not to this extent: The Nuggets’ net rating in the regular season was plus-12.5 with Jokic on the court, versus minus-10.4 with Jokic off—easily the largest gap for any rotation player in the league.

So when Bam Adebayo fell (flopped?) to draw Jokic’s fifth foul with more than nine minutes remaining of Game 4 of the 2023 NBA Finals, the underdog Miami Heat seemed poised to engineer yet another fourth-quarter comeback in a postseason full of them.

Already, Game 4 was the sort of disjointed, arrhythmic affair that tends to point Miami’s way, chock-full of odd little moments that favored the Heat. Miami banked in a pair of 3-pointers. Kyle Lowry pulled the chair to induce a turnover. A lengthy delay—involving a level and a couple ladders—was necessary to straighten a crooked rim, and gave Adebayo and Jimmy Butler valuable time to rest ahead of a critical finishing kick. Against that backdrop, Jokic’s foul trouble might have been the final straw.

And yet, over the next five minutes, with Jokic off the floor and Miami racing to get back in this game—and this championship series—the Nuggets lost only one measly point from their lead. For years now, the Nuggets have revolved around, and relied upon, Jokic’s brilliance, which propelled them all the way to a 2-1 lead in the Finals. But during a crucial, potentially championship-defining stretch, in hostile territory and facing the combined might of unfortunate refereeing and Heat culture, the Nuggets’ role players saved the day. They kept their poise, they kept the lead, and they kept pushing to a 108-95 win. And now, they’re just one win away from the first title in franchise history.

Let’s fast-forward the Game 4 analysis all the way to that fourth-quarter stretch, because the Finals certainly seem to have hinged on the minutes following Jokic’s departure with foul trouble. The Heat had entered the frame trailing by 13 points but cut the deficit to 10 with a triple from Duncan Robinson—who’d kick-started their comeback in Game 2—before Jokic left the floor. Within two more possessions, they’d already cut that smaller margin in half, from 86-76 to 86-81, with a pair of Adebayo free throws and a Butler 3-point play.

But with the Miami crowd roaring and the Heat already unfurling their patented fourth-quarter approach, Jamal Murray sank a 3-pointer out of a timeout, then found Aaron Gordon for a layup about a minute later. That assist was Murray’s 10th of the night—making him only the second player in NBA history, along with Magic Johnson, to start a Finals with four consecutive games and double-digit assists.

Despite his assist total and zero turnovers, Murray suffered an off night overall—by the incredible standard he’s set in the postseason—and shot just 5-for-17 from the field. After scoring 34 points in Denver’s Game 3 win, he tallied just 15 in Game 4.

But Gordon was ready to pick up the slack: He led Denver in scoring for the first time during the playoffs, with 27 points on 11-for-15 shooting, as he shot a surprising 3-for-4 from distance and converted a series of not-so-surprising acrobatic finishes at the rim. He chipped in seven rebounds and six assists and effectively guarded Butler—who hunted switches just about every time he handled the ball because Gordon defends him so well. The Nuggets outscored the Heat by a whopping 29 points with Gordon on the floor.

“Aaron did it all for us tonight,” coach Michael Malone said after the game. “He really did.” Including thriving as the backup center, as he has all postseason, with Malone opting to bench Denver’s true centers in favor of the more flexible Gordon to limit the drop-off without Jokic.

In this potentially title-winning, Jokic-less stretch, Murray and Gordon were joined by three newer additions to orbit the Denver core. With a six-point lead, Jeff Green (who signed in free agency during 2021) made a corner 3. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (a trade acquisition last summer) stripped Butler on a drive. Bruce Brown (a free agent signee last summer) finished with a layup in transition.

A minute later, Jokic was back on the floor, the lead was still comfortable, and the Heat’s opportunity to even the Finals had passed. They’d received the rare gift of Jokic foul trouble and squandered it.

The remaining four minutes of the game might as well have been a coronation, which the role players led yet again, as Brown sandwiched a pair of 3-point plays—one an old-fashioned and-1, the other a pull-up 27-footer—around a Caldwell-Pope 3-pointer. Brown finished with 21 points on the night, via a ridiculous 8-for-11 shooting performance, and scored half of the Nuggets’ points in the fourth quarter.

An NBA team can’t win a title without a leading star to carry the offensive burden, but it can’t triumph without the proper support around that star either, nor without proving its mettle in a few gut-check moments along the way. Jokic was still productive in Game 4—23 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and three blocks—but he didn’t score at all in the fourth quarter. During those final minutes, he needed his teammates to prove, once and for all, that they could carry him, too.