MIAMI — Searching for a fancy way to explain the harmonious talents of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, Ish Smith decided to invert a famed duo.

“They’re like John Stockton and Karl Malone,” the well-traveled Denver Nuggets guard said, “except Stockton would be Nikola and Jamal would be Malone.”

The new-age big man functions as the facilitator. And the modern point guard is often the finisher in their vaunted two-man game. With backward brilliance, the tandem looks ahead of its time.

During a 109-94 Game 3 victory over the Miami Heat, the Nuggets wrested control of the NBA Finals because Jokic and Murray took charge like never before. For most of their seven years together, they have been a formidable pair. On Wednesday night, they graduated to unstoppable.

They took the zeal out of the Kaseya Center crowd one deft attack at a time, leaving a permanent imprint as the first Finals teammates to record triple-doubles in the same game. Jokic amassed 32 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists, the first 30-20-10 performance the Finals has seen. Murray went for 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. The NBA had never witnessed, in any game, two teammates produce 30-point triple-doubles.

NBA history is filled with laudable guard-center partnerships. This one is the most original of all.


“It’s greatness, man,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “It’s greatness. That’s a dynamic duo right there.”

Denver leads the series 2-1, which is far from insurmountable. But a comeback appears daunting for Miami because Jokic and Murray can access their wide range of offensive gifts. In Game 3, they showed the Heat nearly everything that makes them special.

They set an aggressive tone early. They flashed their mastery of the two-man game. They alternated scoring and playmaking roles every time down the court. In the free-flowing Denver offense, players are asked to make proper reads in reaction to the defense. The ball must find the open man. However, to win this matchup, the Nuggets need to play with more intent, target the mismatches better and give the ever-changing Heat defense a larger dose of their best players.

That adjustment was clear from the start. Jokic and Murray took 13 of Denver’s first 16 shots. By the end of the first quarter, they had attempted 16 of the team’s 23 field goals and scored 18 of its 24 points. They also combined for six assists.

“It’s a great duo,” Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Their games really complement each other. You have one guy that really can score in a lot of different ways. Another guy who is setting great screens or handoffs, and if the ball gets back to him, he can get a bunch of people involved.”

When the Heat blitzed Murray, he gave up the ball, hitting Jokic with pocket passes or identifying a teammate cutting to the basket. Jokic dominated in the post, from midrange and with patient drives. As dangerous as the two stars are when directly interacting, they give each other room to explore their independence.


Murray is a point guard who happens to play with a point center. His enthusiasm for operating off the ball adds a critical dimension, but he’s not a blind scorer. He and Jokic balance distributing responsibilities without a ton of structure from Malone. For both, there should be a stat that measures how much they influence plays simply by knowing when to let the other cook.

“A lot of guys play with each other,” Denver Coach Michael Malone said. “I think those two guys play for each other and off of each other, and they read each other so well.”

Do not underestimate how tricky it is to coordinate. Jokic and Murray must keep adjusting to each other at all times. Most high-level facilitators are ball dominant; they aim to get it out of their hands as quickly as possible. They don’t coexist. They work together.

“I’d say it’s a trust and a feel,” said Murray, the first player in Finals history to debut with three straight games of at least 10 assists. “It’s not really X’s and O’s. It’s just reading the game and trusting that the other is going to make the right play. If he throws it to me, he knows and expects what to see from me, and he knows the mood I’m in, the intensity I’m playing with, whether it’s low or high, time and score, and vice versa. I know when he’s overpassing. I know when he’s looking to score. I know when he’s the best player on the floor. I know when he’s taking a second to get into the game.

“I think it’s just a feel and a trust that we’re going to figure it out, and it’s a lot of unselfishness. It’s free flowing. If something is there, we go. If it’s not, we don’t force it.”

Smith is onto something with his offbeat Stockton-Malone comparison. Jokic and Murray are the upside down version. They don’t work in a system as detailed and innovative as Jerry Sloan’s Utah Jazz offense. Instead, they add the creativity by playing inverted basketball.


Look at big Jokic flaunting his small-guy skills, and look at little Murray setting screens and finishing in traffic. They bend convention, and then they straighten it. They can play a new or a classic style. They just blessed the Finals with their most mind-blowing performance to date.

“I’ve always felt that Nikola and Jamal Murray are one of the most elite and lethal two-man-game combos in the NBA, and we’ve seen that growing for seven years now,” Michael Malone said. “And I think it was on full display once again.”

Never one to marvel, Jokic dismissed his performance and spoke of Murray’s impact as succinctly as possible.

“I mean, we win,” Jokic said. “I think it’s pretty simple.”

The duo was not a simple creation, however. Jokic won his two MVPs mostly without the injured Murray, and in the playoffs those two years, his greatness was not sufficient. He needed his co-star. Together, Jokic and Murray possess an electric combination of shooting, court vision, physicality and humility. Now, they’re doing historic things.

They’re a problem for which the Heat does not have an answer.

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