The Denver Nuggets defeated the Miami Heat despite a quiet scoring night from Denver’s two main stars. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray combined for 26 points on 22 shots – just 8 for Jokic – but their fingerprints were still all over the game while Michael Porter Jr, the defense and the bench truly shined. Porter had 25 points and 7 rebounds, and while Denver’s bench struggled in the first half they had crucial second half minutes to secure the win. Reggie Jackson scored 7 of his 9 points in a one-minute stretch of the fourth quarter, and despite Bam Adebayo’s 17-point, 13-rebound effort and tough defense the Heat just couldn’t match Denver’s scoring and efficiency down the stretch. Once again Jimmy Butler was held in check by the defending champs, made into a non-factor in a crucial game for both teams. When push came to shove, Miami blinked first and Denver took sole possession of first place in the Western Conference playoff seeding with a great first win for their road trip.

Game Recap

Terry Rozier opened the scoring for the Heat with a layup while Miami started off physically playing Nikola Jokic. Bam Adebayo made a pullup, Joker threw it inside to AG for a layup and then Gordon’s defensive rebound led to his own full-court finish. Jokic hit a hook over Rozier, Butler drained a 3 for Miami, and Duncan Robinson’s drive put Miami up 9-6. A Jokic steal turned into an MPJ three to tie it and Murray’s took the lead. KCP had a steal and finish, MPJ grabbed some boards, and AG’s stepback off the baseline made it 16-9 Denver. Denver attacked the defensive glass to keep them to single shots, MPJ made another jumper, and KCP’s second steal led to yet another finish and a 12 point lead. Miami finally made another bucket, while Jokic missed a spin shot in the lane, but he tipped in his effort the next time down. Miami fought back with a couple of paint buckets while Christian Braun had some tentative possessions, but Jokic made another hook shot to push the lead to double digits again. Jimmy Butler started attacking inside for the Heat while Peyton Watson missed a couple of jumpers inside 10 feet, while Jokic settled for a long-range jumper that missed (or was fouled on), and the bricked corner 3 from Watson to close the quarter left Denver up 26-19 up one.

Justin Holiday missed a pair of deep jumpers while the Heat kept attacking inside for buckets and free throws, cutting the lead to 3. Holiday bricked another three but got a turnover off Butler the other way, and Watson finally finished at the rim. Holiday missed again but Peyton Watson got a jumper to fall, and Murray’s three countered the Heat’s efforts inside from Thomas Bryant and others. Miami kept working to get better shots but Murray made some tough shots to keep the lead at 35-30 Denver when Jokic came back in. Porter buried a 27-foot three, Jaquez kept scrapping inside for points for Miami, and Robinson’s floater was countered by another MPJ three to make it 41-34 Denver. Rozier hit a really difficult 16-foot shot over Mike, and Bam went to the line for Miami’s twelfth free throw to Denver’s three at that point. Aaron Gordon missed a step-back three, then got fouled near the bucket. Murray finally got some Denver free throws to get the lead back to 7, but Butler and the Heat worked hard on the glass on both ends. Bam made a turnaround, Murray bricked a three, and Miami got the deficit to 1. Butler made a jumper that Porter answered at the rim, and Jokic was left without a second quarter shot until the final minute when he got to the free throw line. A poor offensive quarter for Denver ended with MPJ getting fouled by Butler on a three to finish off a great half from him, and his free throws put Denver up 50-44 at the half.

Jovic for the Heat made a three to open the second half scoring, answered by KCP off a Jokic assist. Jimmy Butler made a paint stepback, Murray answered off a Jokic screen, but Murray and KCP both missed long jumpers while Robinson made his for Miami. The Heat swarmed Jokic to force him to pass and MPJ also missed, and Butler’s pair of buckets gave the Heat the 56-55 lead. Murray missed another three, as did Porter but he got his own rebound and finished inside for his first bucket of the second half. AG got a tip-in off his own miss that Bam answered with a jumper on the other end, but Miami was the more efficient team with Denver missing open opportunities. Jokic finally took another shot and made it, but KCP’s three was off again the next time down. KCP cut for a beautiful finish off a Watson pass to Put Denver back in front at 64-63, but Jovic and Bam answered with inside buckets to put Miami back up 3. Porter made a bucket, then blew a layup when he should have dunked, and Miami just kept finishing their possessions while Denver did not. The Miami lead was still just 4 when AG made a baseline 3, and Murray’s scoop finish under the hoop gave Denver the lead back 72-71 with one quarter to go.

Christian Braun made a much-needed three for Denver to start the fourth, and the Nuggets forced a 24-second clock violation as Denver’s bench had a better attention to detail. Braun made a jumper and a shot at the rim, Jaquez made a layup to answer AG’s rim finish and Denver was up 6 at 81-75. Watson was good on defense and the glass for Denver, but Murray’s missed three turned into a transition finish for Miami. Holiday made his first bucket, a pull-up 2, but Martin’s three made it a one possession game again when Watson took a feed from AG and finished a great dunk down the middle to force a timeout.

Porter hit a pull-up to put Denver up 7, but Jaquez answered at the rim. Reggie Jackson used a Jokic screen for a nice bucket, but Rozier answered that too. Jackson buried a second jumper, Braun secured a rebound off a Bam miss, and Reggie’s heat check three was good and got him mobbed by the guys on the bench as Denver’s lead stretched to 10 at 94-84. Reggie was so hot they left Jamal on the bench while Denver rebounded and worked both the clock and the scoreboard. Aaron Gordon made a free throw, Butler made two, and Jamal finally came back in and assisted a Jokic hook shot dagger. Porter’s rebound of a Miami miss basically sealed this one, but he buried a corner three anyway to get the Nuggets the win 100-88.

Final Thoughts:

– A tale of two halves for the bench. The bench guys have to make the most of their opportunities. In the first quarter, Christian Braun got a beautiful pass from Jokic near the rim but wasn’t ready to try to score off of it, passing it back out. He got the ball again with an open 3 but didn’t take it. He cut under the basket and stopped, causing a turnover because he brought his defender into Reggie Jackson’s space. Peyton Watson clanked three open shots just in the first, playing tentatively. Zeke Nnaji passed up a couple of shots he should have taken, while Justin Holiday took a couple he should have passed up. Denver needs them to take good shots, and for the most part they did – they just didn’t make them. It wasn’t necessarily bad process, but the bench struggles when Murray is its only willing scorer, and Reggie Jackson can’t be dribbling the ball off his foot and out of bounds if his minutes are going to be impactful. Denver’s bench had 6 points against 3 turnovers through 3 quarters, and that’s just not enough in a playoff-level matchup.

They’ve got to find a way to get more done – and in the second stint they did. Christian Braun’s open three point make in the beginning of the fourth, followed by the bench forcing a 24-second clock violation, is more of what they have to do: value possessions, make open shots, play defense. Watson put pressure on with his rebounds and a monster dunk. Reggie knew the Heat were selling out to stop Jokic from getting the ball in finishing position and he made three crucial buckets down the stretch off that idea. The bench players for the Nuggets have to play like they belong so they don’t get left behind, and they were a crucial part of Denver’s win tonight specifically because they believed they could be and played like it.

– There’s no such thing as, “Taking away what Denver does.” What Denver does is play team basketball, and as both Reggie Jackson and Michael Porter Jr. said after the game they are just trying to take advantage of what the defense gives them. If the defense is willing to give open looks to MPJ, who is shooting on 50 / 40 / 90 splits since the All Star Break, then he is willing to take them. Jokic and Murray believe in their offensive understudies. Jamal and KCP were ready at the scorer’s table to come in, but Jackson was hot and this was the conversation according to coach Michael Malone:

The Nuggets won’t be pushed around – Miami tried and wore themselves out trying, which is why Denver pulled away at the end. But Denver’s defense doesn’t quit, their offense is malleable, and their stars are more concerned with wins than stats. If it’s MPJ’s night then Denver will take that and the W happily. Jokic is always waiting in the wings able to take over late if the execution isn’t there, but tonight it was there and he just facilitated and rebounded. The win is everything in Denver, and enjoying the success of your teammates is the path to victory. First place in the West is not a fluke, and Denver is not going away. They intend to make another title run and it’s up to someone else to try to deny that destiny.