Jamal Murray, and the 5 minutes that saved Nuggets in Game 4: “I’m not going to fight it”

MIAMI – On the first possession after Nikola Jokic went to the bench with his fifth foul, the ball nearly rolled out of bounds.

The broken play ended with Aaron Gordon chucking a desperation 3-pointer from the wing, and Denver’s lead, down to just eight only a few minutes into the fourth quarter, looked more tenuous than ever.

The white-hot Heat crowd was roaring, sensing a momentary chance to stake their claim to these Finals.

A lineup of Jamal Murray, Jeff Green, Bruce Brown, Christian Braun and Gordon was in and tasked with surviving the dreaded non-Jokic minutes. All that was on the line: a chance to push the Nuggets to the doorstep of their first-ever championship.

But even on that first broken play, the Heat tipped their hand. Murray was unbothered.

“Tonight it just felt like they were blitzing every pick-and-roll, just basically trying to limit my shot attempts, and I just wasn’t fighting it,” said Murray, who finished with 15 points on 5-for-17 shooting but dished 12 assists to zero turnovers in a 108-95 Game 4 win over Miami.

“We’ve got a squad,” Murray said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can come and impact the game, a lot of guys playing with confidence, so I’m not going to fight it. Make an easy pass, and that’s why I’ve got four other guys out there. … Jeff hit a big three. AG was doing his thing all night. Bruce (Brown) was hooping. We’ve got a lot of guys that can come in the game and hoop. You don’t have to fight it. I’m not on a team where I’ve got to force it or hold the ball too long. I’ll gladly give up if we’re winning games.”

One game after Jokic and Murray made NBA history, it was the team’s collective effort that put them a win away from a title. That could come as soon as Monday night at Ball Arena in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

Gordon finished with a team-high 27 points. Brown dropped in 21, including 11 in the fourth quarter. Jokic registered 23 points in what was far from his most dominant game of the Finals. But given the performances they got elsewhere, that was more than enough.

“They were giving Jamal so much attention that let’s get Jamal off the ball, let Bruce make some plays,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

Up 86-81 with 8:29 left, Murray stepped into the shot of the night. He came around a screen and buried a deep 3-pointer to quiet Miami’s mounting resurgence. On the next three Nuggets baskets, Murray cut and weaved and probed, racking up assists each time.

First, he found Gordon with a lob on a roll to the hoop – a pass honed and perfected by Jokic himself. Next he sliced through Miami’s defense, then dished to Green in the corner for a clutch 3-pointer in the shadow of Miami’s bench. On the next, the Nuggets poked the ball free to kick-start a transition chance. Once again it was Murray, on a platter, to Brown.

Along the baseline, Jokic screamed at his team and tried to convey what he was seeing.

“I don’t know what I was saying,” Jokic said. “Probably to get us in some action, just don’t have empty possession.”

Murray didn’t let them.

During that crucial five-minute stretch, Miami managed to outscore Denver just 11-10. The Nuggets defended on a string, guarded players up in size and swarmed until Jokic could return. With Green on Bam Adebayo, Gordon on Jimmy Butler and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope communicating, the Nuggets held water.

Once Jokic returned, the drama was all but over. Brown made three more buckets, including a step-back 3-pointer with 1:22 left in the game. Heat fans had already streamed to the exits on a Caldwell-Pope 3-pointer a possession earlier.

At certain points during the season, the idea that the Nuggets might survive a significant non-Jokic stretch was far-fetched at best and laughable at worst. But instead of Murray circumventing the offense and forcing his shots, he trusted his teammates and imbued confidence into their looks.

The Nuggets, as their triumphant Game 4 victory proved, are more than just the sum of their stars, Jokic and Murray. They’re a collection of dogged, prideful players who are, collectively, unselfish at their core.

“It’s really rare,” Gordon said of finding a locker room like Denver’s. “It’s a blessing. It’s awesome to play with these guys. These guys are so unselfish. They’re so passionate about basketball, and they understand that you’ve got to keep energy in the ball, and if you play the right way, everything will work out the way it’s supposed to. We can win. Everybody gets love when you win.

“It was nice just knowing that I could be myself, and that was enough,” he continued. “I didn’t have to be any more or any less. Yeah, that was cool. I get to just do what the team asks of me, and sometimes it’s score, sometimes it’s rebound, sometimes it’s defend the best player, sometimes it’s make plays. It could be something different on any given night, but every night I get to just be myself.”

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