For nearly two hours, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone watched in awe with how Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray dominated.
Jokic dominated with his post-up game, perimeter shooting and passing. Murray dominated with his playmaking, outside shooting and aggressiveness at the rim. Together, they ran a two-man game that looked unstoppable.
After processing what he saw in the Nuggets’ 109-94 win over the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday, Malone gushed about Jokic and Murray showcasing what he considered “by far their greatest performance as a duo in their seven years together.”
“We’ve had some pretty good moments, but not in the NBA Finals,” Malone told reporters. “For those guys to make history the way they did tonight, no one has ever done that.”
Malone did not offer any hint of hyperbole. No need to oversell Murray for posting 34 points while shooting 12-for-22 from the field, 3-for-6 from deep and 7-for-8 from the free-throw line along with 10 rebounds and 10 assists. No need to overhype Jokic for adding 32 points on similarly efficient clips from the field (12-for-21) and from the foul line (7-for-8) along with 21 rebounds and 10 assists.
Historic game for Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray
Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray became the first teammates in NBA history to post triple-double performances with at least 30 points in the same game. Jokic became the first player ever in NBA Finals history to record at least 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists. And Murray joined Magic Johnson and Bob Cousy as the only players in NBA history to tally at least 10 assists in three consecutive Finals games.
“It’s a trust and a feel. That’s the best way for me to put it,” Murray told reporters. “It’s not really Xs and Os. It’s just reading the game and trusting that the other is going to make the right play. If he throws it to me, he knows and expects what to see from me. He knows the mood I’m in, the intensity I’m playing with, whether it’s low or high, time and score, and vice versa. I know when he’s overpassing, I know when he’s looking to score. I know when he’s the best player on the floor. I know when he’s taking a second to get into the game.”
That might seem like a lot of items to worry about on the to-do list. In Game 3, Jokic and Murray checked off the tasks just fine.
Jokic set screens for Murray so he could attack the rim or shoot uncontested 3s. Murray set Jokic up in the post so he could score inside or find another open teammate. When Jokic drew double teams, he often found Murray cutting to the basket or sprinting to the perimeter. When Murray drew double teams, Jokic often popped out behind the arc both for open jumpers and space to drive for open layups.
“It’s just respect of each other and relationship over the years and communication,” Jokic told reporters. “But it’s not just us.”
Getting help from the supporting cast
OK, fine. Murray and Jokic are not the only reason the Nuggets cemented a 2-1 series lead and reclaimed home-court advantage against the Heat. Denver forward Aaron Gordon added 11 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Denver rookie Christian Braun contributed 15 points on a 7-for-8 clip and four rebounds, including scoring six of the team’s first nine points to open the fourth quarter. The Nuggets have prided themselves on maximizing their depth and chemistry.
That happened in Game 3, however, largely because of Jokic and Murray. They combined to score just over 60% of the Nuggets’ points. They collectively recorded an assist on 71% of the team’s baskets. Don’t buy Jokic’s uncertainty on if this marked the best performance that he and Murray have displayed, either.
Jokic and Murray became the eighth duo to score at least 30 points in three playoff games in a single season. Who were the other players? None other than Elgin Baylor/Jerry West (five times), Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook (three), LeBron James/Kyrie Irving (twice), Kobe Bryant/Shaquille O’Neal (2002), Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry (2017), Giannis Antetokounmpo/Khris Middleton (2021) and Durant/Devin Booker (2023).
“It’s a great duo,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters. “Their games really complement each other. You have one guy that really can score in a lot of different ways. Another guy who is setting great screens or handoffs, and if the ball gets back to him, he can get a bunch of people involved.”
Jokic and Murray made history at a time the Nuggets needed them to do so the most.
The Nuggets lost to Miami in Game 2 partly because of Jokic and Murray showed different versions of themselves.
Jokic dominated Game 2 with 41 points, but he recorded only four assists. The Nuggets hardly blamed Jokic for that performance. Yet, it captured Denver’s inability to fully exert its depth. After all, the Nuggets have gone 0-3 in the playoffs when Jokic has scored at least 40 points. In Game 3, however, Jokic stuffed the box score in every category.
“Nothing he does surprises me ever,” Malone told reporters. “This guy has shown time and time again that he’s built for these moments. He thrives in these moments — the biggest stage.”
Malone observed the same thing about Murray. He liked the look he had on a missed 3-pointer that could have forced overtime in Game 3. Murray sounded hardly pleased, though, with his 18 points while shooting 7-for-15 overall and 3-for-8 from deep. It blemished his 10 assists. At practice the next day, Malone embraced Murray and had various private conversations with him to keep his spirits high. In Game 3, Murray played aggressively and efficiently.
“I’m really proud of Jamal,” Malone told reporters. “That’s what champions do. That’s what warriors do. They battled back. I felt his presence all day long. Forget the stats for a second. I felt Jamal’s presence, his energy, and he was here in the moment.”
Are Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray league’s top duo?
It seems too early to lump Jokic and Murray with the other duos that also scored at least 30 points in three playoff games in a single season. Jokic and Murray are two wins shy of winning their first NBA championship together. Consider the championship ring count together among Bryant and O’Neal (three), Durant and Curry (two), James and Irving (one) and Antetokounmpo/Middleton (one).
Still, Jokic and Murray have something even some of those duos lacked. Denver’s depth partly explains why Durant and Booker lost with Phoenix in the second round. Irving eventually left Cleveland in hopes to grow out of James’ shadow. Durant left Golden State in hopes to prove he could win an NBA title without Curry. Durant and Westbrook eventually struggled co-existing.
Overall, Jokic and Murray have emulated how both Baylor and West as well as Antetokounmpo and Middleton cared about each other’s success. As for this year’s playoffs, Jokic and Murray indisputably have become the NBA’s best duo.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George suffered injuries again. The Lakers’ LeBron James and Anthony Davis eventually ran out of gas. Durant and Booker didn’t have enough depth around them. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and James Harden flamed out. Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown showed inconsistent aggressiveness and efficiency.
As for Jokic and Murray? They have joined Magic Johnson and James Worthy as the only pair of teammates to have at least 25 points and 10 assists in an NBA Finals game.
Jokic has collected a league-record 10 triple doubles in the playoffs. He has tied Alex English for second place in Nuggets’ postseason history for most 40-point games. And he joined Larry Bird (1987) and James (2015-18, 2020) as the only players in NBA history to log at least 500 points, 200 rebounds and 150 assists in a single playoff run.
“He just makes the game look easy throughout the game,” Murray told reporters about Jokic. “How many times does he have to do that for you guys to believe in his game or our game?”
The same thing could be said about Murray. He has ranked fifth among playoff point guards in points per game (27.0), second in shooting percentage (48%) and seventh in assists (6.6). He has recorded one 40-point game and six 30-point performances. And he appears on pace to set career postseason highs in points (27) and assists (6.6) three years following his break-out playoff performances in the NBA bubble when the Nuggets advanced to the Western Conference Finals.
Just imagine what Jokic and Murray could have accomplished together had Murray not injured the ACL in his left knee late at the end of the following season (2020-21). That mostly explains why the Suns then swept the Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs. A year later, the Warriors dispatched Denver in five games in the first round amid injuries both to Murray and Michael Porter Jr. (back).
“He’s been our best player since round one,” Jokic told reporters about Murray. “Even if he doesn’t make shots, his energy is always good. I think that’s the best feeling for the guys around him.”
In fairness, Jokic has won two consecutive regular-season MVPS before finishing this season behind Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. Not only did Jokic concede the MVP trophy to Embiid, Jokic argued that Murray should have won the Western Conference Finals MVP.
“We’re just trying to win a championship,” Murray told reporters. “All that comes after you win the championship. If we were to lose, no one gets that trophy, right? We win the championship, everybody eats. I’m just excited to see everybody succeed.”
The Nuggets appeared excited to see Jokic and Murray succeed in Game 3 on their way toward making NBA history.