MIAMI — We’ve heard a lot about “Heat Culture” throughout the Finals and in these playoffs.
“Hardest working, “most professional,” and “best conditioned.” Those were the words that flashed across the jumbotron in Miami prior to the start of Games 3 and 4 which describe the Heat’s DNA.
But in Game 4 of the Finals, the Heat and the rest of the NBA learned about Nuggets Culture. They learned what Denver’s team of destiny is all about. And they learned it while the back-to-back MVP and best player in the world was sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter.
“A big part of our culture is trusting one another,” Michael Malone said after the Nuggets’ 108-95 win that moved Denver to within one victory of its first NBA Championship.
That trust showed up late in Game 4. After Nikola Jokic was whistled for his fourth personal foul at the 9:41 mark of the fourth quarter and his fifth 27 seconds later, Malone turned to his bench. With Jokic sitting, a lineup featuring Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, and Aaron Gordon played the Heat nearly even and were only outscored by one point over the next five minutes of action.
It was a defining chapter in the story of this Nuggets team. Denver was run off the floor all regular-season long with Jokic off the court but held its own without its superstar, on the road, in a raucous environment, during the highest-pressure minutes of the playoffs. Malone trusted that his group would get it done. They have for most of this postseason.
The Nuggets are +4 in the playoffs with Jokic off the court.
“Guys stepped up,” said Malone. “We were up 13 going into the fourth quarter, they start off 8-0 and that coincides with Nikola picking up his fifth foul. So they came out aggressively. They have us on our heels, and usually in the regular season when Nikola went out, things kind of went haywire.”
“But I can say not just tonight but throughout these playoffs, however many games we’ve played now, the non-Nikola minutes have gone really well. We called a timeout, we ran a play, ATO, Jamal knocks it down. Really well executed. The unit that was out there, Jamal, Bruce, Jeff, Aaron, and then KCP or Christian, they defended.”
The Nuggets somehow held their poise as Jokic trudged to the bench after a phantom fifth personal foul was whistled by referee Scott Foster. Denver got enough stops, Green drilled a clutch corner 3, Gordon locked down on defense, and Brown took over.
Brown, one of the Nuggets’ key offseason acquisitions who came to Denver to play defense, scored 11 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. He hit the final dagger too, a pull-up 3 from the top of the arc with 1:21 remaining in regulation that clinched the Nuggets’ win.
“When he did a step-back three, I almost — I wanted to punch him,” Jokic said. “But when he made it, I was so happy.”
If the Nuggets win Game 5 on Monday and bring the Larry O’Brien trophy to Denver for the first time in franchise history, that gutsy fourth-quarter spell from a lineup without Jokic will be remembered. It should be an iconic part of Nuggets history. There should be a place carved out at Ball Arena honoring that stretch of basketball.
Because no one would have batted an eye if Denver had folded to Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Co. It would have been disappointing, sure, but there would have been a reason for it.
“All season long, it was like oh, the non-Nikola minutes,” said Malone. “Kind of a crapshoot.”
The Nuggets can taste an NBA Championship. It’s right there for the taking. Denver’s mission is nearly complete. The Nuggets just took two games in Miami, a place where the Heat had only lost twice in the playoffs prior to Game 3 vs. Denver. They’ve had their foot heavy on the gas since they touched down in South Beach.
“I like that we didn’t relax,” Jokic said. “We didn’t get comfortable. We were still desperate. We still want it. That’s what makes me happy, that guys didn’t relax.”
With the ultimate goal now just 48 minutes away, owners Stan and Josh Kroenke sipped cans of Coors Light in the Nuggets’ postgame locker room as they reminisced on a memorable win. Murray, the “Point God,” as Gordon called him postgame following a 12-assist, 0-turnover night in a team-high 43 minutes, calmly sat at his locker that has a poster with a Bruce Lee quote taped to one side of it.
“Knowing is not enough. We must apply. Willing is not enough. We must do,” it reads.
The Nuggets are on a path to accomplishing everything that they set out to do this season. They’re on their way to fulfilling every goal that they had.
The elite defense that Denver said all along would be needed to win a championship has held the Heat under 100 points in three of four Finals games. Jokic is becoming an all-time great. Murray is proving that he’s one of the best playoff performers in NBA history. Gordon is making it so the Nuggets’ decision to acquire him back in 2021 is looked back on as the most momentous trade in franchise history. Malone is one win away from becoming the most outstanding coach to ever roam the Nuggets’ sideline.
This is who the Nuggets always knew they could be.
“We believed and we knew how good we were for a few years now,” Murray said. “So we’re just focused, dialed in, and ready to do this thing.”
“We’re just ready to win a championship. We have the tools to do it. It’s been on our minds for a while. We’re just locked in. I don’t think you’ve got to overthink it. We’re just dialed in, ready to win.”