DENVER — A gold rush at Ball Arena for Game 1 of the NBA Finals left four Denver Nuggets shining as the top prospectors vying for the Bill Russell Trophy after the club’s 104-93 demolition of the Miami Heat.
Two-time Kia MVP Nikola Jokic and his teammates Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. combined Thursday for 52 of the Nuggets’ 59 first-half points, sparking a 17-point lead at halftime that periodically swelled when the visitors grew antsy down the stretch while searching for answers. Closing on a 10-3 run in the third quarter, Denver entered the fourth quarter up 21, as its fiery foursome fried Miami by itself, outscoring the Heat 67-63 as Denver grabbed an 84-63 lead.
Unsurprisingly, Jokic loaded up yet another triple-double in his Finals debut, finishing with a game-high 27 points as well as 10 rebounds and 14 assists. Murray had 26 points and 10 dimes, as the point guard and center became the first duo since Magic Johnson and James Worthy to each put up 25-plus points and 10-plus assists in an NBA Finals game.
Gordon, meanwhile, pitched in lockdown defense in addition to 16 points. Porter dropped a 14-point double-double that featured a playoff career-high 13 rebounds.
“This was everybody stepping up, doing their job,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said, “but knowing we can all be a lot better come Sunday [in Game 2].”
Miami star Jimmy Butler likely feels the latter after a rough night sputtering to his lowest scoring output of this postseason (13 points), while finishing a team-worst minus-17. The Heat are 1-4 in the 2023 playoffs when an opponent limits him to less than 20 points.
So, forgive the Nuggets-heavy nature of this latest edition of our 2023 Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder.
And now, the Top 5 in our 2023 Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder after Game 1:
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Game 1 stats: 27 points, 10 rebounds, 14 assists
Just the third player behind Wilt Chamberlain (1967) and Magic Johnson (1982) to enter the NBA Finals averaging a triple-double in the playoffs, Jokic tallied his ninth triple-double and seventh in his last nine outings, which ranks as the most in NBA history for a single postseason. The numbers are more mind-boggling when considering he’s produced nine of the league’s 12 triple-doubles of this 2023 postseason. Jokic’s 14 assists represent the most by a center in an NBA Finals game. “He’s going to be great at times,” Butler said of Jokic, who was certainly feeling the love at Ball Arena after joining Jason Kidd (2002) as the only players in league annals to drop a triple-double in their Finals debut.
2. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Game 1 stats: 26 points, 6 rebounds, 10 assists
Everybody knows he’s dangerous, having scored 30 points or more in seven games this postseason, which is just two fewer than Boston’s Jayson Tatum. Murray took an aggressive approach in this one, going 8-for-12 from the field and 2-for-3 from deep for a first-half best 18 points. Murray has now scored 25 points or more in 11 of his 16 games in the 2023 playoffs. “We’re just reading the game,” Murray said. “If they take the pocket away, we’re looking somewhere else. If they take me away, then we’re looking somewhere else. We’re just trying to find the open man, find the best shot, find the mismatch. It’s hard to guard everybody instead of just one or two guys.”
3. Aaron Gordon, Denver Nuggets
Game 1 stats: 16 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist
Gordon added an element of physicality early on that Miami likely wasn’t expecting. Gordon simply bulled through Heat defenders to set the tone in a bruising first quarter that saw the 27-year-old pour in 12 of his 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting with four rebounds. Perhaps most importantly, Gordon took on the responsibility of guarding Butler with the same vigor he’s used holding down everybody else throughout these playoffs. As the primary defender against Kevin Durant and LeBron James in this postseason, Gordon surrendered a total of 94 points on 43.2% shooting. Butler finished with 13 points, after averaging 20-8-8 during the previous two regular-season meetings between the teams.
4. Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Game 1 stats: 14 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks
Porter tallied his seventh double-double of this postseason, while posting a playoff-career high in rebounds. Defensively, his 7-foot wingspan showed up as a constant problem for the Heat, which seemed reluctant to take open, makeable shots at times. Porter called Game 1 an opportunity to work through “some healthy nerves there for the whole team” but stressed the importance of Denver keeping its foot on the gas for Game 2. “We know how good we are here,” he said. “To get off to a good start in the series is big for us. We’ve been able to do that every series so far. So, we are looking to continue that.”
5. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Game 1 stats: 26 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists
One of the few bright spots for the Heat (along with reserve Haywood Highsmith), Adebayo scored 16 of his 26 in the first half, producing his 17th career playoff game with 20 or more points and 10 or more rebounds. Only James (25) has more such games in Heat history. When Adebayo scored his 14th point, he became the fifth player in Miami franchise history to tally 1,000 playoff points, joining Butler, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. It’s worth noting Adebayo had scored just 23 points on 8-for-26 shooting in his last two playoff games and has 10 turnovers in his last three playoff games. So, despite the loss, Adebayo’s solid night bodes well for the Heat if he can keep it up.
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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