MIAMI — Like two ships passing in the night, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was angling to leave the victorious locker room Wednesday night while Nikola Jokic was hustling to the shower.
Uncertain who was going in which direction, they bumped into a wall and dislodged one of the numerous motivational posters that Nuggets trainer Sparky Gonzales created for the NBA Finals and plastered throughout the away locker room.
“We have a chance to do something nice,” the poster read, quoting the team’s irreverent and understated Serbian.
Jokic, a constant comedian, and Caldwell-Pope, fiddled and struggled with the poster board before finally getting it to stick some 30 minutes after the Nuggets snatched Game 3 with an emphatic 109-94 win. It was the same poster that hung inside Jokic’s locker room stall, which sat two down from Jamal Murray, who had a quote from Bruce Lee taped to the side of his gray wall.
“Knowing is not enough,” Murray’s read. “We must apply. Willing is not enough. We must do.”
Jokic and Murray made history on Wednesday night, becoming the first pair of teammates to record 30-point triple-doubles in the same game. Forget about the criteria that it occurred on the biggest stage either had ever played on, or that it came with the series hanging in the balance and Miami having seized momentum. The shared feat had never been done before in any capacity.
“A lot of guys play with each other,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said, his team halfway to an NBA championship. “I think those two guys play for each other and off of each other and they read each other so well.”
Jokic’s line — 32 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists — while overwhelming and dominant, was old hat for him. Wednesday’s Game 3 victory marked his 10th triple-double of the postseason; no one else had more than one.
Jokic abused smaller matchups, rendering All-Defensive wing Jimmy Butler a bug on a windshield. He filleted the Heat on floaters in the mid-range, many of which were born of the shape-shifting pick-and-roll Murray and Jokic can run blindfolded. Of Jokic’s 12 buckets, seven were assisted by Murray. He weaponized his 47% playoff 3-point stroke — a number so preposterous when paired with his endless post moves that you’d think he was created in a Serbian lab.
But as special as Jokic was against Miami’s myriad schemes, Wednesday’s monumental win happened as a result of Murray’s unique ability to master his mental state, just like Bruce Lee advised.
Murray was especially hard on himself after Denver’s Game 2 loss. It wasn’t just the missed shot that would’ve tied the game, either. Murray was critical of his approach.
“I felt like I didn’t bring the intensity that the moment called for,” Murray said.
A talk with Malone at Tuesday’s practice reinforced the support he had.
“He was putting a lot of Game 2 on him, and it wasn’t just him,” Malone said. “… But that’s what champions do. That’s what warriors do. They battled back. I felt his presence all day long. Forget the stats for a second. I felt Jamal’s presence, his energy, and he was here in the moment.”
Whatever pressure Murray felt, he embraced en route to a 34-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist masterpiece.
He hunted space in Miami’s paint, swerved into his happy place, the mid-range, and buried cold-blooded 3-pointers with the shot clock winding down. When he wasn’t attacking in isolation, leaving his defenders in the dust, he was building off of Jokic’s dominance. Four of Murray’s buckets came directly off Jokic passes. Several others were the result of space forged from Jokic’s log-jam hips
According to Murray, his favorite dance partner knew the headspace he was in and set him up for success. Murray’s 20-point first half let his teammates feel out Game 3 and bought them time to strike a rhythm.
“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,” Murray said. “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.”
A goofy Serbian and a hungry Canadian. No wonder they call themselves “Peanut Butter and Jelly.”
Across seven years together, including the heartbreak of Game 82 against Minnesota, the devastation of Game 7 against the Trail Blazers in their first playoff run together, the magical Bubble run to the conference finals, and then the prolonged wait to get back here following Murray’s torn ACL, the two have shared some deep and painful scars.
That’s what made Wednesday’s shared moment so sweet. Well, that and Murray’s vulnerability.
“You know, if people ask, it’s a big stage, do you get nervous and stuff?” Murray said. “You’re supposed to be. That’s what makes you care. That’s what makes you alive. That’s what makes you enjoy these moments. It’s good to feel that.
“I just kind of get into zone, meditate a little bit, lock back in, knowing this is what I do, this is what I’ve been doing for my whole life, this is what I’ve wanted to do my whole life,” Murray said. “… All the butterflies, that’s supposed to happen. That shows that you care and that shows that you’re excited.”
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