With all eyes on Denver for the first time, the Nuggets delivered in Game One of the NBA Finals. Here’s the report card after a successful debut on the big stage
Nikola Jokić – A+
Nikola Jokić made history in his long-awaited Finals debut. Jokić joined Jason Kidd as the second player to record a triple-double in his first NBA Finals game. He’s alone at the top with his 14 assists. And, of course, he did it all in a win. That’s the only part that matters to him.
Jokić looked content as ever to stay true to his favorite basketball philosophy. A shot makes one person happy — an assist makes two. It’s a lovely sentiment, although he might be wrong on the count. He made countless people from Chopper Circle, to York & Colfax, and the streets of Sombor elated by halftime. As the teams hit their locker rooms for a breather, Jokić had posted ten assists without turning the ball over once. He only shot three times. He didn’t force it — “I never force it,” he said after the game.
The Nuggets cruised through three quarters. They took center stage of the basketball universe and dazzled with their polished brand of basketball. They know how to win together. They understand why they’ve won together. They looked like a well-oiled, winning machine before the fourth quarter struck.
Miami junked it up with their coverages and leaned on their infamous zone defense. Haywood Highsmith (extremely cool name) began pressuring Jamal Murray full court. They forced Denver out of their beloved two-man game. The offense sputtered initially, and the Nuggets went to their first adjustment — let Jokić cook. The big fella carried them home with 12 points in the final quarter.
The box score will show you that he struggled defensively. But an initial or rewatch reveals a blatant concession on Denver’s part. They were content to let Bam Adebayo work hard for two points. Shutting off Jimmy and his shooters was the priority. To Bam’s credit, he buried a large handful of mid-to-close-range jumpers and layups, but more was needed to keep pace with Denver’s offense. Jokić and the Nuggets looked comfortable for most of the night.
Jamal Murray – A
Before Miami finally derailed Denver’s offense, Murray and Jokić worked their magic in front of an international audience. They were graceful floor managers, displaying their remarkable chemistry. “It’s not a fixed offense,” Murray explained to the new faces in a crowded media room. He responded to various questions on approach with a consistent explanation: it’s all about flow. As long as those two trusts each other and their reads, everyone will eat. Murray joined Jokić with an impressive debut of his own. His 26 points, 10 assists, and 6 rebounds, put him in elite company.
After the win, Aaron Gordon praised Murray’s performance. Jokić is a floor general, Gordon explained, but so is Murray. He lauded Murray’s pace and marveled at his control of the game.
Murray’s more than a floor general; he’s the emotional leader of the Nuggets. Predictably, he scored the first points of the series. He rounded the corner of a Jokić pick and scored through contact at the rim. The crowd roared, he responded with a shout, and a newfound joy permeated the Ball Arena. The Denver Nuggets were taking center stage of the basketball universe, and 27 looked ready to play.
Michael Porter Jr. – A-
Michael Porter Jr, Denver’s vaunted sharpshooter, shot 2 of 11 from three-point range. Check the calendar if it sounds like a failing performance. It’s 2023, and we’re talking about a winning basketball player now. MPJ is about more than buckets.
Porter was one of the best defenders on the floor in his NBA debut. It was the best defense he’s ever played. He picked up two big-time blocks — exciting plays, but merely exclamation points on his hard work. He picked his spots beautifully when stunting or committing to help defense. He trusted his length and the exceptional margin of error it provides when navigating a pick and roll or closing out on a stationary shooter. When left on an island with Jimmy Butler on one possession, he forced a pass and then made a second effort to close out on the shooter. He flew around out there.
Porter’s work rate was off the charts. Initially prone to disappearing from the action for lengthy stretches, Porter is learning to keep himself involved, not with excessive shot-taking but with a commitment to the boards and the defensive end. He was everywhere in game one. He left with a double-double to show for it.
The shotmaking was below his standard, but they were primarily good looks. He and his teammates should be delighted if they continue to come his way. In the meantime, he provides value against Miami’s zone just by taking the floor. The difference in spacing is night and day.
Aaron Gordon – A-
Gordon was relegated to a non-shooter for large stretches of the Western Conference Finals. He was even played off the floor in Game Three. It was clear from Thursday night’s opening tip that the Heat won’t have such luck in the Finals. Gordon’s just too big for their small starting lineup. He scored 12 points and grabbed four rebounds in his first ten minutes. His teammates were eager to feed him the rock. He feasted at the rim.
AG also earned the DPOG chain from Head Coach Michael Malone. He praised Gordon’s defense against Jimmy Butler but added he thought the entire team deserved it. Gordon echoed the sentiment, downplaying his involvement in a team effort to hold Butler to just 13 points on 6 of 14 shooting. He also said the chain could have gone to his teammate, Michael Porter Jr.
After the game, Michael Malone explained to the press why Aaron Gordon doesn’t get enough credit. Nikola Jokić embodies the Nuggets culture, Malone said, and so does AG. His selflessness is an essential element of this team’s success. Jokić himself shared similar thoughts.
A reporter explained Malone’s comments to Gordon and asked if Gordon felt under-credited, AG turned down the opportunity to beat his chest. “I’m not here for the credit,” he said. “I’m here for the wins.” Another gem from Mr. Nugget.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – C
KCP was the lone starter who struggled in Game One. He won’t mind as the team shifts their attention towards securing another win. As for the struggle, he shot 3 of 8 from the floor, 1 of 3 from deep, and spent a fair amount of time on the ground after contact. Some of his attention drifted away from the task and to the referees. Those factors ate into his typical defensive impact. Still, Denver survived the off night from their trusted veteran. They survived his lack of threes, and Mike’s misses. The Nuggets shot just 8 of 27 from deep as a team. It didn’t matter.
Bruce Brown – B+
Brown knocked down his shots in the series opener. He shot 2 of 3 from deep and dropped in one of his funky floaters. He rebounded well off the bench, too. His exceptional postseason continues. He won’t stop until they’ve got the trophy. He might not know how to stop.
Jeff Green – C
Malone kept the rotation tight in Game One. Christian Braun barely played, and even Jeff Green logged fewer than eleven minutes on the floor. He had some moments defensively, but Miami crushed the non-Jokić minutes in the fourth. It was too hard for Denver to score.