One of the most consistent ways to make Nikola Jokić’s MVP case the last three seasons was to point out how quickly the Nuggets fell apart whenever he sat on the bench.
Take the 2022-23 regular season, for example. Denver was 24.8 points per 100 possessions with Jokić on the court compared to on the sideline—the second straight season the team led the league in this ignominious category, per Cleaning the Glass. With Jokić on, the Nuggets had a 13.2 net rating. With Jokić off, that number slipped all the way to minus–11.6.
So when Joker picked up his fifth foul in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Finals, the Heat looked primed for a comeback. Miami, which has seven wins this postseason after trailing by double digits, was losing 86–76 with a little over nine minutes to go when Jokić exited the game after picking up an offensive foul. The crowd was raucous. The stage was set for the Heat to go on a run, the same type of barrage that led them to victories in the first three rounds.
Instead, Denver held serve. By the time Jokić checked back in over five minutes later, Miami had trimmed the lead by only one measly point. And that five-minute stretch may have clinched the Finals for the Nuggets, who will take a confident 3–1 series lead back to Denver after a 108–95 victory.
“Usually in the regular season when Nikola went out, things kind of went haywire,“ Michael Malone said after the game. “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.”
It’s true. After struggling to find a proper substitute big for Jokić this season, Denver essentially stopped playing one in the postseason. Malone has used Aaron Gordon as the team’s backup five, eschewing the likes of Deandre Jordan and Thomas Bryant, and that tweak to the rotation has paid big dividends.
Entering Game 4, Denver had a 10.1 net rating in minutes with Gordon on the floor and Jokić on the bench. In the Finals, the two most-used, Gordon-at-center bench lineups are a plus–12 in 15 minutes. That may seem like a small number, but that’s a major issue for Miami. It used to be that teams would feast on the Nuggets whenever Jokić sat. Not only have the Heat not been able to take advantage of those groups, but they’ve also lost those minutes in key stretches, which is fatal for a team with an already razor-thin margin for error. On Friday, Denver was a plus–4 in the 11 minutes Jokić didn’t play.
In the fourth, after Jokić went out, Murray hit a three, then assisted on three straight buckets: A Gordon layup, a Jeff Green three and another two-pointer from Bruce Brown Jr. Meanwhile, the Heat offense hardly thrived, canceling out whatever scores they made with a couple misses in the paint and two costly turnovers.
“Defensively for them, they switch a lot and try to blow stuff up,” Duncan Robinson said after the game about the challenge Denver’s small-ball bench five creates. “In theory, I guess it's a faster, more physical group.”
The Nuggets’ second unit is one of many reasons the Heat find themselves in a 3–1 hole. Miami can’t seem to find an edge in any category of the game. Even when the Heat are able to put somewhat of a lid on Jokić and Jamal Murray—who combined for 38 points in Game 4 after their dueling triple doubles in Game 3—somebody else shakes free. On Friday, that somebody else was Gordon. In addition to spearheading the second unit defensively, Gordon ate on the other end of the floor. He led all scorers with 27 points and was a game-best plus–29.
Gordon has been a constant thorn in Miami’s side, torturing them with either bully ball in the paint or well-timed dashes to the basket.
“I felt like the size was more of a factor in Game 1. I think there was miscues, lack of communication or rotations tonight,” Erik Spoelstra said of Gordon’s impact in the series. “Now, he is fully capable of doing what he is able to do. He's big, he's athletic, he's a great finisher and he has a real good synergy, all that stuff. So you have to respect that, and then conquer it.”
“I mean, that's just how this team is built. We have guys that can step up night in and night out,” Gordon said of being the high scorer Friday. “Sometimes it's not going to be your night, and sometimes it is going to be your night. This team does a good job finding the people that are kind of in a rhythm and kind of going.”
Right now, it seems as if everyone on the Nuggets is in a rhythm. After years of the team disintegrating like a paper straw without their MVP, Denver has turned those minutes into something of use during this playoff run. With a pivotal Game 4 hanging in the balance, the Nuggets were able to ride their bench in the face of a team that made its playoff name on comebacks. And those five minutes and 15 seconds—which Malone may have had to sweat out in the past—could now be one of the biggest reasons Denver is holding a trophy by the end of this series.