When Nikola Jokić went to the bench, the Nuggets had to hold the line. We examine how they did it and later, reveal our Nuggets vs. Heat Game 5 prediction.

To push the Miami Heat to the brink, the Denver Nuggets had to pass a test that they’ve failed time and again since Nikola Jokić has been in town. They aced it, and now it’s the Heat who seem out of answers.

The Nuggets were cruising and looked well on their way to an NBA Finals Game 4 win until a fork-in-the-road moment came early in the fourth quarter. Jokić picked up his fifth foul with 9:24 left in the game, and his team leading 86-76.

One of the biggest issues surrounding the Nuggets for years has been the minutes when Jokić sits on the bench. The team has struggled to survive, and when they signed DeAndre Jordan to start the season as Jokić’s backup center, it seemed the struggles would continue.

But here the Nuggets were, in the Finals, with a chance to show once and for all that their final form could handle Jokić needing to sit down. Against a team that refuses to give an inch, the Nuggets would have to earn a stranglehold on this series without the best player in the world on the floor.

The Heat immediately went on a 5-0 run, but Jamal Murray hit a big shot out of a timeout, sprinting to get a handoff from Aaron Gordon after setting a back screen and knocking down a 3-pointer.  

Bruce Brown, one of the most important free agent signings of the offseason, scored 11 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter to help keep the Nuggets afloat. By the time Jokić checked back in, Miami had only shaved a point off Denver’s lead, as the score was 96-87.

With 4:24 left and their best player back on the floor, the Nuggets had survived the game’s biggest inflection point and had a 3-1 series lead well in hand.

The Other Guys

This series had been all about the beautiful two-man game between Murray and Jokić, and Miami sold out as much as possible to stop that in Game 4. They succeeded, as Murray and Jokić combined to go just 13 of 36 from the field.

But the Nuggets’ game offensively was good enough anyway, due to hot shooting (14 of 28 on 3s), Murray and Jokić being willing to defer, and the other players on the team rising to the occasion.

Gordon went from a very good player in an unclear role with the Orlando Magic to a star in his role with the Nuggets. It’s often discussed how many shots he had to sacrifice, but he brought his scoring chops in Game 4 and put up a playoff career-high 27 points on just 15 shots. He also added seven rebounds, six assists, and his usual stellar defense.

The transformation of Gordon into who is today was evident in the shots he took. Sure, he went 3 of 4 on 3-pointers, something Heat fans will likely lament, but he also punished mismatches with brutal efficiency. Miami forced Denver’s role players to finish plays, and they were able to do that.

That’s been the issue for the Heat this series. Miami has made opposing teams uncomfortable all postseason, dictating the way opponents play.

But there isn’t a style the Nuggets can’t play, and there isn’t a player on the floor who won’t make helpers pay. After a mediocre at best regular season, Miami has been at its best in the NBA playoffs when it hasn’t committed full help on double teams but instead hedged and recovered and dared the other team to make enough right passes. And if the other team made those passes, the Heat would funnel the ball to someone who wasn’t ready to score.

The Nuggets offense revolves largely around Jokić and Murray getting the advantages, but all of their rotation players are able to finish possessions and score. With the diversity of options and confidence of every player on the floor, Denver has looked like a five-armed boxer against Miami, and the Heat don’t know where the next punch is coming from.

No player has embodied this always-adapting style more than Denver’s superstar point guard. Murray has obviously had some big scoring moments in the Finals, but his willingness to pass when the Heat have left him a lane has been lethal.

Murray became the first player with a 12-assist, zero-turnover game in the NBA Finals since Magic Johnson in 1987. He has at least 10 assists in all four Finals games thus far. He didn’t have 10 assists in a single playoff game before the Finals.

The D in Denver

Of course, everyone knew the Nuggets offense was unstoppable coming into the playoffs. The bigger question has been whether the defense can hold up for a championship run. And Denver answered that with an unequivocal yes.

Going back to the point in the game without Jokić, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who hasn’t had the best series offensively, made some championship-caliber defensive plays when his team needed it. He blocked Eastern Conference finals MVP Jimmy Butler’s shot as Butler was going up and followed that up with a steal, forcing Butler’s lone turnover in the game. It led to a fastbreak layup for the Nuggets.

Caldwell-Pope got switched onto Bam Adebayo on the next possession and contested just enough to force Adebayo into a miss. Adebayo has been asked to do so much in this series and has acclimated himself well.

But the Nuggets have bet that he can’t make them pay too much if they give him favorable matchups, and it’s a gamble that has paid off enough to help shift the series. The miss with Caldwell-Pope on him was one of a few looks that Adebayo would like to have back.

There’s also Gordon, the defensive superstar whose athleticism and physicality have given fits to the best players in the NBA on Denver’s march to the Finals. He’s guarded Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Butler in the last three rounds, and bothered each of them. He doesn’t get mentioned much when the elite defenders are discussed, but that should change. His on-ball ability coupled with his versatility make him an indispensable weapon for a team on the cusp of a championship.

And there’s also Jokić, whose defense has been hotly debated. The advanced stats have always liked him more on that end than most people watching the game (DRIP has him as the 50th-best defender in the league, a major plus on that end). While the answer is likely in the middle, it’s becoming clearer with each game that the stats saw something real.

Every team that has played the Nuggets this postseason has tried to expose Jokić by forcing him into more action, forcing him to guard pick-and-rolls longer, and forcing him to make multiple reads away from the basket. It hasn’t mattered. He tallied three blocks and three steals in Game 4 and was once again good enough at the rim to anchor a championship-caliber defense.

Denver has also stymied Caleb Martin and Max Strus, two key contributors to Miami’s upset wins over the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics. Martin and Strus have shot a combined 16 for 62 (25.8%) in this series.

Gordon is the defensive star (and Caldwell-Pope and Brown and several others deserve credit as well), but if Jokić was a sieve, it wouldn’t matter. He’s not, and the Nuggets are one win away.

Series Win Probability

In terms of the moneyline, sportsbooks have the Nuggets, who will be at home at Ball Arena, as the best bets (-430) to win the title in Game 5 and the Heat as the underdogs (+328).

But what is our win probability model’s Nuggets-Heat prediction for tonight’s showdown?

The model calculates each team’s chances of based on thousands of simulations. It incorporates our adjusted team ratings (including overall adjusted team rating, adjusted offensive rating, and adjusted defensive rating), accounts for recency bias (so it gives more weight to teams playing well), and for how well teams performed against other good teams.

Game 5 win probability

Considering that only one team in 36 opportunities has come back from down 3-1 to win the NBA Finals, our model gives the Nuggets a 93.2% probability of winning this series and a 70.4% chance of closing it out in Game 5.

But then again, we’ve mistakenly counted this Miami team out before.

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