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SPORTS

Nuggets Now in Full Command of NBA Finals, Top Heat 108-95 for 3-1 Lead

MIAMI (AP) — The mission for the Denver Nuggets was clear: Come to Miami, get two wins and head back home with a chance to finally become NBA champions.

It’s officially there for the taking.

The 47-year wait for Denver might be over as soon as Monday, with Nikola Jokic and his Nuggets now just one win away from getting the title that he’s wanted for so long. Aaron Gordon scored 27 points, Jokic added 23 and the Nuggets beat the Miami Heat 108-95 on Friday night to take a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.

“We haven’t done a damn thing yet,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We have to win another game to be world champions.”

Bruce Brown scored 21 off the bench for the Nuggets, who won their fifth straight road game to grab complete command. They’ll have three chances to win one game for a title, two of those in Denver, the first in what’s sure to be a raucous atmosphere for Game 5.

Players are introduced before the start of Game 4 of the basketball NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets, Friday, June 9, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee )

Jamal Murray had 15 points and 12 assists — his fourth consecutive double-digit assist game — for Denver.

“Today was a team effort.” Murray said. “I can’t even name one person. Everybody locked in. We’ve got one more to go.”

Jimmy Butler scored 25 points for Miami, which has now fallen into 3-1 holes in each of its last three finals appearances — this one joining 2014 and 2020. Bam Adebayo had 20 points and 11 rebounds for the Heat, while Kyle Lowry added 13 points.

The Heat walked off the floor in silence, fully aware of how much trouble they’re in now.

“Now we’re in a must-win situation, every single game — which we’re capable of,” Butler said. “It’s not impossible.”

The Nuggets were overwhelming favorites to start the series, for obvious reasons. Denver was the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed; Miami was the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed. The Nuggets had won nine of the last 10 regular-season meetings between the teams, and their run of success over the Heat has continued through four games of the finals.

“Our guys are locked in, man,” Malone said. “We’re focused.”

Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50)dunks the ball during the first half of Game 4 of the basketball NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, Friday, June 9, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Denver led by 13 going into the fourth, and Miami came out for the final quarter with appropriate desperation. The Heat scored the first eight points, Jokic committed his fifth foul and had to go to the bench with 9:24 left — and it was down to 86-81 when Butler converted a three-point play with 8:42 remaining.

But the Nuggets — who fell apart in the fourth quarter of Game 2 for their lone loss of the series — didn’t fold, even with their two-time MVP still out. Murray made a 3-pointer to stop Miami’s 8-0 spurt, and Jeff Green made a huge corner 3 from near the Heat bench for a 94-85 edge with 6:21 left.

“We have guys that can step up, night in and night out,” Gordon said.

Jokic checked out with Denver up 10. He came back with the Nuggets up nine. Miami didn’t take advantage of that chance, and now finds itself on the wrong end of history. A team that had to scramble just to make the playoffs now needs to pull off the ultimate scramble to win a championship.

“This is what this year’s been all about for this group, so definitely not going to hang our heads or quit,” Heat guard Duncan Robinson said. “That’s not an option. It’s not going to happen. So we’ll band together and get on this flight tomorrow and find a way to figure it out.”

Teams that take a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals have won 35 out of 36 previous times, and the Heat will have to buck that trend to keep Denver from winning its title.

“We have an incredibly competitive group,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’ve done everything the hard way and that’s the way it’s going to have to be done right now — again. And all we’re going to focus on is getting this thing back to the 305. Get this thing back to Miami. And things can shift very quickly.”

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Jokic tweaked his right ankle when he landed on the back of Max Strus’ foot midway through the opening quarter. He briefly retreated to the Denver locker room before the start of the second quarter and played the rest of the way with no evident issues. … Murray played with tape protecting the bottom of his left hand, thanks to a nasty floor burn he got in Game 3. … It was Denver’s 25th win on the road this season, tying a franchise record set last season. … Michael Porter Jr. scored 11.

Heat: It was retiring 20-year veteran Udonis Haslem’s 43rd birthday and rookie Nikola Jovic’s 20th birthday. Jovic was 58 days old when Haslem signed his first Heat contract. … If it was Miami’s home finale this season, then the Heat went 613-299 in its home arena during his career. … Miami started the playoffs 6-0 at home. The Heat are 0-4 on their home floor since. … Robinson and Kevin Love each scored 12, and Caleb Martin scored 11.

SLOW START

Miami led 21-20 after one quarter. The 41 combined points were the fewest in the first quarter of the last 24 finals games; the first quarter of Game 4 of the Toronto-Golden State series in 2019 had 40 points.

CELEB WATCH

Kentucky coach John Calipari was in the crowd, as was Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces, Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields and twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder — who helped the Miami Hurricanes make the Elite Eight in this year’s NCAA women’s tournament.

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By TIM REYNOLDS AP Basketball Writer

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