Versatile big man Nikola Jokic and sharpshooter Jamal Murray have combined to lift the Denver Nuggets two wins from an NBA title, adding to the pressure upon the Miami Heat.
Jokic had 32 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists while Murray had 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a 109-94 Nuggets' victory that gave Denver a 2-1 lead entering Friday's fourth game in the best-of-seven championship series.
Jokic has defied defensive matchups for years, passing to teammates when rivals deny him good shots, and his versatility allows him to set up Murray for scoring chances as well.
"They're a dynamic duo. We got to bring our best effort," Heat guard Gabe Vincent said. "Jokic is a pretty good screener. He typically makes contact with the primary defender pretty well. Jamal can score in a number of ways. He puts pressure on guys immensely."
For Serbian center Jokic, thwarting rivals has become like moving pieces on a chessboard.
"It's just like bringing a chess game. They are one move, we are another move. I think this is the time where the players show what they've got," Jokic said Thursday.
"It's cool just to see different solutions, how different players think and how some players are reacting a certain way."
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has some new moves in mind to checkmate the Nuggets and their deadly duo.
"Those two guys can manipulate your defense in different ways," he said. "Whatever you do, you just can't do it all the time.
"Understanding what they're trying to get to, we try to get them out of their comfort zones as much as possible. They really got to that two-man action quite a bit.
"Game four could be different. They may go to a different part of their menu. Whatever it is, we have to find a way to get the job done."
That puts the load on Heat stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
"We got some of the great two-way players in this game, Jimmy and Bam. We're going to figure it out," vowed Miami's Haywood Highsmith. "We'll be ready for them."
Murray benefits from picks and passes from 7-footer Jokic as he works his versatile magic.
"He's strong. He has got amazing touch, IQ, passing. He does a great job of just picking his spots," Murray said. "He's up there with the greats.
"To be able to pick teams apart with his passing and scoring and timely passing is really tough to stop."
Nobody knows that more than Butler.
"He's a hell of a player. He has been very dominant everywhere on the floor," Butler said. "You've just got to do everything you can to stay between him and the basket."
- Backs against the wall -
Jokic's ability to weaponize teammates is more crucial than his ability to shoot 3-pointers or dominate inside, Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
"It's not just the three points that he is making, but the pressure and added layer he is putting against that defense," Malone said. "It's really fun to watch him pick, pop, drive to layup or make a play for somebody else.
"That's what defines him for me as a truly great player, his ability to make every one of his teammates better."
The Heat, however, have made a hobby of upending expectations, winning a play-in game just to reach the playoffs, then ousting NBA wins leader Milwaukee, New York and, after squandering a 3-0 series lead, Boston.
"Tomorrow we're going to come out with a lot more energy," Butler said. "We're going to compete at a high level. We're going to get one at home."
The Nuggets are chasing the first title since the team joined the NBA in 1976. The Heat seek a fourth crown and first since 2013.
"We know our backs are against the wall," Miami's Kevin Love said. "If we play our game, stay true to our concepts, we're going to give ourselves a chance to win. If anybody is capable of it, we are."