DENVER — Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra practically snickered when asked about neutralizing the effective two-man game played by Denver Nuggets teammates Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
“Yeah, where do you start? You have two guys that can score 50 in a playoff game. One guy is a triple-double machine that loves to get guys involved,” Spoelstra said.
“You go down the list of myriad of things you can do defensively, you have to check off some things that you don’t really want to do because of both their ability to score and Jokic’s ability to create something off-script."
Spoelstra knows what the Heat are up against; it's nothing new for Denver. The Nuggets' potent duo has been nearly unstoppable in powering Denver's 13-3 run through the playoffs, including a 104-93 win in Game 1.
A win Sunday night would make them just the second team this century to win its first 10 home games in a single postseason. The Nuggets' run to what they hope is their first NBA championship is being fueled by Jokic and Murray.
They're entering the pantheon of pick-and-roll royalty of standard-bearers John Stockton and Karl Malone. But the Nuggets do it with a different twist.
Whereas Malone set up almost all of the screens for Stockton when they were Utah Jazz teammates, Denver's version is ambidextrous, doubling the difficulty of deciphering much less defusing it.
“Three, four years ago, the No. 1 pick-and-roll combo in the entire NBA was Nikola and Jamal,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone recalled. "And most people would just assume that it was Nikola setting for Jamal. It was actually the opposite. It was Nikola handling and Jamal setting.
“The reason it was so effective, aside from the obvious — two really talented players — is that Jamal is big, strong, physical and not afraid of contact. Some guys like to slip out of every screen because they don’t want to make that contact, they don’t want to give themselves up," the coach added. "Jamal from early in his career here, he’s shown that he’s willing to go and set a screen on a big guy, small guy, doesn’t matter, because he’s tough.
“The second part of that is he also knows that if Nikola has the ball and he screens, his man has to help, which will give him separation. If you want to simplify the game of basketball, it comes down to separation."
Both Murray and Jokic are three-level scorers who can shoot 3-pointers, make midrange jump shots and drive to the basket. Their Game 1 performance put them in some elite company.
Heading into the series opener, only Michael Jordan in 1991 and Russell Westbrook in 2012 had at least 25 points, 10 assists and five rebounds in an NBA Finals debut. Jokic and Murray added their names to that list Thursday night — Murray had 26 points, 10 assists and six rebounds and Jokic extended his NBA record with his ninth triple-double in these playoffs, getting 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds.
The only other pair of teammates to have 25 points and 10 assists in an NBA Finals game was Magic Johnson and James Worthy, who did it for the Los Angeles Lakers against Boston in Game 1 in 1987.
Murray and Jokic have been refining their on-court relationship since Murray's rookie season in 2016, a year after Jokic joined the Nuggets as the now-hard-to-fathom 41st overall draft pick. Murray was backing up Gary Harris and Jokic was coming off the bench behind Jusuf Nurkic.
“We would actually come into the game together, and we would run post-ups or just simple give-and-goes ... and I’d say then we kind of developed a chemistry," Murray said. "Soon we both started, we started playing off each other. We started to figure out where we like the ball, when we liked the ball, when I’m going to pass, when he’s going to pass, when he’s driving, when to relocate, where to relocate.”
Heat guard Kyle Lowry, who is in his 16th NBA season, is hard-pressed to come up with a better point guard/big man combo.
"Jamal and Jokic, they’re deadly because they both can score and pass the ball," said Lowry, noting he played against the San Antonio Spurs' “great combination” of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. “They’re big targets, and they have a great feel for each other.”
Nuggets guard Ish Smith has been on a record 13 teams in 13 NBA seasons and said he has never seen anything quite like Denver's duo. Smith said what makes Jokic and Murray so effective is both players are the antithesis of superstars who'd rather go 1-on-1 in isolation.
“It wouldn’t work if Nikola was selfish and, ‘I need the ball,’ and Jamal was a guy that was like, ‘I need the ball all the time,'" Smith said.
The Heat know they have to at least slow down the Nuggets.
“We have proven that we can win and overcome regardless of how the game is going,” Spoelstra said. “Ideal situation would be if it’s on our terms and we are controlling the tenor of the game, but we have also won games where we haven’t been able to do that for the entire game.”
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