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DENVER — Nikola Jokić makes a lot more sense if he’s contextualized as a big, bruising boxer than a graceful, skillful basketball player — exerting force on every possession, making sure he’s throwing his weight around, and you, too.
It would be easy to believe Jokić played a passive game because he took only a handful of shots in the first three quarters, but he, like his teammates, has performed with a concentration and steely approach no one has been able to match in these playoffs.
Jokić’s Finals debut was a hit with yet another triple-double, 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds, yet another step toward the ultimate validation.
The Denver Nuggets manhandled the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals with a 104-93 win that didn’t feel as close as the spread indicated, with the Nuggets showing very little in the way of rust or jitters on the biggest of stages.
Even though the Heat are an eighth seed, and the Nuggets have been first in the West since December, they’ve shared a few traits over the last several weeks. Until Thursday, neither team trailed in a playoff series, evidenced by both taking control of every series in the opener.
The Heat just happened to handle their business on the road against Milwaukee, New York and Boston — a fact the Nuggets and Jokić knew full well coming in. Jokić was aware he would be public enemy No. 1 on the Heat scouting report, so he didn’t decide to fight the power — he just empowered his teammates through his own aggression.
It seemed to throw the Heat off-balance in the first move of this chess match, with Jokić being a willful facilitator and even a decoy while Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon got cooking early. Gordon might’ve been overwhelmed as a top option in Orlando but he fits perfectly here, as almost an afterthought in Denver’s potent scheme. Miami took a calculated risk in daring Gordon to beat them, giving up easy switches to the likes of Max Strus and Gabe Vincent, believing the Nuggets wouldn’t consistently exploit it.
They were wrong. Big wrong.
Jokić dragged Bam Adebayo out to the perimeter and ceded the space on the low block to Gordon, who punished the smaller guards. It would’ve been very easy, almost tempting for Jokić to take an aggressive tone, especially given the stakes.
The entire basketball world is watching, focused only on these two clubs — diehards and casuals alike. Jokić could’ve very well put a clown suit on Adebayo like he did Anthony Davis in the last round, and wouldn’t have been wrong to do so.
But the game called for something different, and he obliged.
“To be honest, I couldn’t wait to start just because when the game started it felt abnormal,” Jokic said. “Everything else didn’t feel — felt abnormal, and the whole media day yesterday or the day before, it was — I think people are making something bigger than it is.”
He took the least amount of shot attempts of any Nuggets starter through three quarters (five) while Adebayo hoisted up 18 more shots to that point. Adebayo was Miami’s only offense while Jokić was still the hub everything ran through.
Gordon set a tone early with 12 points in the first and Murray did some chin-ups at the rim before halftime, scoring 18.
“It’s hard to guard everybody, instead of just one or two guys,” said Murray, who was stellar again with 26 points, 10 assists and 6 rebounds. “We make you have to be locked in on defense throughout the game. I think tonight was just a great example of it could be anybody’s night and anybody’s quarter, maybe not your quarter. That’s just Nuggets basketball.”
Of course it helped that Miami’s snipers went cold — with Strus going 0-for-10, nine misses coming from 3-point range. Caleb Martin was also a no-show, hitting just 1-of-7 after his breakthrough showing against the Celtics.
Jimmy Butler didn’t exert his force after the first few minutes, something one would think will change before Game 2 on Sunday.
Whether it was the altitude or any other factor, the groans you heard were from Boston and Milwaukee wondering how this Miami team suddenly decided it couldn’t shoot straight, hitting just 26% from 3 in the first three quarters.
Or maybe it was the Nuggets’ defense treating the Finals opener with the appropriate pressure.
“You can’t be the No. 1 seed with just offense. That’s hard to do,” Murray said. “Jokić has great hands down there. [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] is aggressive. Bruce [Brown] is one of the best defenders. [Gordon] is one of the best defenders.”
The Nuggets led by 17 and repeatedly threatened to run away and hide for the rest of the game — keeping a good jab on the Heat whenever it appeared they wanted to make things interesting.
“I think that’s the beauty of Nikola. I learned a long time ago the defense tells you what to do, and Nikola never forces it,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “If they’re going to give him that kind of attention, he had 10 assists at halftime, I believe. Well, he’s going to just pick you apart. Now it’s up to the other guys to step in and make shots.”
There’s this almost overarching effort to make Jokić saintly, to say he doesn’t care about scoring or individual accolades in his pursuit of winning. And it may be true but it misses a huge element to his game: how much he loves dominating.
Physically, he leans on you like a heavyweight, knowing over the course of 12 rounds (or seven games), he’s going to outlast you because he’s going to tire you out. With the bumps, screens and all-around physicality, it’s a mantra that has filtered to the rest of the Nuggets.
“He’s a force down there, and he’s just more athletic than people give him credit for, and he just has a ridiculous motor,” Gordon said. “He has a motor that just doesn’t quit. It’s tough guarding a guy like that.”
They aren’t the most physical bunch, but they are relentless, and that screams out Jokić.
“I think it was the fourth quarter, we got into the bonus early,” Malone said. “I was trying to post him up, get him the ball, tried to screen Bam, so he could catch the ball in a scoring area and let Nikola do what he does.”
Twelve of Jokić’s 27 points came in the fourth, when the Heat made a modest comeback. The Heat will walk away knowing they can play much better, getting their footing in this series — but the Nuggets and Jokić will still be leaning on them, pounding away until there’s not much snap left in those punches.