It’s closing time on the 2022-23 NBA season.
But whether it ends in Denver or Miami is up to the Nuggets. They’ve already proven themselves superior to the Heat while taking a 3-1 NBA Finals lead. It seems only they can get in their own way at this point.
Here are three keys to winning Game 5 on Monday (6:30 p.m. MT, ABC) and clinching the championship in front of the home crowd at Ball Arena.
1. Joker or Curry?: In Denver’s last 15 games of the regular season, Nikola Jokic (active for 10 of them) shot 4 for 20 from 3-point range. But this is the quintessential take-what-the-defense-gives-him basketball player, so circumstance has upped Jokic’s trigger finger in the playoffs. In 19 games, he is 34 for 73 (46.6%). He launched seven attempts in Game 4 and five in Game 2, and he’s 4 for 6 in those games when taking the shot from directly at the top of the key. If Bam Adebayo and company prefer to blitz Jamal Murray around Jokic’s dribble hand-offs and ball screens or defend Jokic deeper in the paint, he’s always content to wait for the ball up top. That’s one of the highest-percentage shots the Nuggets are generating out of their two-man game at this point. And remember, the defining moment of Denver’s last series-clinching game was a late Jokic 3. He knows how to drill the dramatic ones. It seems fitting that he makes a clutch one in Game 5.
2. Make Jimmy Buckets a scorer: Yes, that’s tongue in cheek. But for all the talk of Eric Spoelstra reducing Jokic to “either” a scorer or distributor, what about Jimmy Butler? The only contest Miami has won in this series was the one featuring Butler’s highest assist total (nine) of the last 12 games. Aaron Gordon thought the Nuggets over-helped on Butler’s drives and post-ups in Game 2, opening up the Heat’s deadly 3-point night, and he thought Denver fixed that problem in a Game 3 win. Butler’s always going to be a smart play-maker for his teammates, but if Gordon and other matchups can play disciplined one-on-one defense against him without sending him to the line, a dimension of his game (and Miami’s) is rendered less prominent. One big difference between the Heat and Nuggets: While Denver often creates its best looks with active cutters, Miami relies more on a drive-and-kick game. Staying home on the camping shooters might not be such a bad thing.
3. The last Nuggets seeking heroics: Just about everyone has had a moment this series. Jokic and Murray: duh. Gordon: Game 4 bullyball, plus the first quarter of Game 1. Bruce Brown: the blistering finish to Game 4. Christian Braun: a playoff high 15 points (and second-highest scoring night of his career) in Game 3. Jeff Green: the team dinner he hosted after a Game 2 loss, not to mention a clutch 3 of his own without Jokic down the stretch in Game 4. But starters Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Porter Jr. remain quiet offensively, without a defining game as individuals. Sure, KCP made vital defensive contributions late in Game 4, and MPJ overcame his poor shooting for a strong Game 1. But both seem due for something bigger than that. Will Porter even be in the close-out lineup Monday after reduced minutes in Miami?
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