Analysis | Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets are primed to party but see Game 5 as must-win

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DENVER — On the cusp of clinching the first championship in franchise history, the Denver Nuggets were greeted Sunday by a media contingent that had thinned noticeably since the NBA Finals opened at Ball Arena on June 1.

“I guess everybody stayed in Miami,” one Nuggets player quipped to a second, who wondered aloud whether any reporters would show up for his interview session.

As the loose practice unfolded, Denver’s players sported the confidence that comes with holding a commanding 3-1 series lead and having Monday night’s Game 5 against the Miami Heat in front of their home crowd. Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope danced to Mase’s old rap hits, and Nikola Jokic jokingly flipped off his teammates with both hands after losing a shooting competition.

The diminished crowd of reporters and light atmosphere contributed to a growing sense that this series has become a formality: Aside from a subpar Game 2 showing, Denver has lived up to its billing as the heavy favorite by being bigger, better, stronger and more consistent than Miami. A closeout win in Game 5 would complete a 16-4 postseason for the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed; that would be the most dominant title run since the Golden State Warriors went 16-1 in 2017. Perhaps that’s why Nuggets Coach Michael Malone, who called out his team’s effort after its Game 2 loss, was most worried about complacency.

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“My biggest concern going into any closeout game is human nature and fighting against that,” he said. “When you’re up 3-1, most teams come up for air. They relax, and they just kind of take it for granted. Our approach has to be that we are down 3-1. The Heat are desperate; we have to be more desperate. They are hungry; we have to be hungrier. There is no celebrating after Game 4. We have another game that we have to win, and the closeout game is always the hardest.”

But there were brief celebrations following Friday’s impressive Game 4 victory in Miami; Jokic cheered on his teammates through fourth-quarter foul trouble and embraced his wife and brothers after the final buzzer. The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers are the only team in NBA history to recover from a 3-1 series deficit to win the Finals, and the underdog Heat doesn’t have a 31-year-old LeBron James on hand to aid the comeback effort.

If Denver takes care of business Monday, Miami’s failure to capitalize on its opportunities to win Game 4 will be remembered as the turning point.

The Heat, so potent on offense against Eastern Conference foes, has been unable to conjure enough three-point shooting to keep up with the Nuggets. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo have pounded away from the midrange to some effect, but the fading contributions from their supporting cast and Denver’s ability to survive Jokic’s foul trouble have set up the possibility of a quick and tidy coronation.

“We need to do a better job overall with our offense and how we can shift their defense,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They definitely made an adjustment to try to stay at home on three-point shooters. It’s not the first time we have faced that. We love playing in these kind of environments where the crowd is going to be great. Everybody is counting us out. We’re used to that.”

The Nuggets are 9-1 at home in the playoffs and 3-1 in potential closeout games, having claimed a narrow Game 5 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round, a blowout Game 6 win over the Phoenix Suns in the second round and a nail-biting Game 4 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

“[The Heat] is different than the other teams we’ve faced,” Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. said. “They’re relentless. They’re going to come in full force. We ended up actually blowing Phoenix out in Phoenix, but we know [Monday] is not going to be like that.”

Jokic registered a triple-double in all three of Denver’s closeout wins, and he appears poised for a bounce-back performance after scoring a series-low 23 points on 8-for-19 shooting in Game 4. The two-time MVP showed no ill effects at Sunday’s practice after rolling his right ankle in the first quarter two days earlier.

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With a resounding Game 5 victory, the 28-year-old could claim his first Finals MVP award and cement his case as basketball’s best player.

“We are going to approach it as a must-win game,” he said. “I know it’s a big opportunity, and I think everybody knows. I think it’s not going to be emotional [before the game]. It’s going to be a job that we need to do to be done. I think we are ready.”

Several Nuggets said they were looking forward to an early-arriving and rowdy crowd, given that Denver has waited 47 seasons for its first NBA championship. Jokic revealed that he had heard from several former teammates during this run, and two of them — Monte Morris and Gary Harris — showed up in Miami to support the Nuggets.

Still, the Heat’s valiant playoff run has included seven road wins, including a Game 7 stunner in the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics. Butler and Adebayo also fought off an impending title celebration when, facing a 3-1 deficit, they beat the Lakers in Game 5 of the 2020 Finals. Los Angeles went on to win in six.

“We’re one game away,” said Caldwell-Pope, who was a member of the title-winning 2020 Lakers and joined the Nuggets last summer. “I’m always telling my teammates: Don’t get on the 1-yard line and fumble the ball.”

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