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Role players buoy Nuggets to clutch, defensive-minded win at Miami Heat

MIAMI — If Denver residents are jealous of their NBA team for a perfectly timed trip to South Florida, worry not: The Nuggets and Heat were just as cold in Miami as everyone is about to be in snowy Colorado.

In another NBA Finals rematch defined by stout defense and low shooting percentages, only the unlikeliest source could provide a decisive heat check moment: backup point guard Reggie Jackson, whose seven consecutive points in a 75-second span handed Denver a 94-84 lead in what turned out to be a 100-88 win Wednesday night at Kaseya Center. Nikola Jokic tallied only 12 points — but his team has won all seven games this season on occasions when Jokic is active but scores fewer than 15.

“It’s important. You’ve gotta win games when Nikola doesn’t score 40,” Christian Braun told The Denver Post. “There’s not many times when he doesn’t do that, but in those games, we have guys who can step up.”

With their 10th win in 11 games since the All-Star break, the Nuggets (46-20) moved past Oklahoma City and into first place alone in the Western Conference with 16 regular-season games to go.

“It was great to us last year,” coach Michael Malone said of the potential No. 1 seed, which Denver now controls without a tie for the first time since Nov. 16. “For Jamal (Murray) to only play 31 minutes tonight, only, that’s great. For KCP to only play 24 minutes tonight, that is great. Somehow, someway, I’ve gotta get Nikola’s minutes down, but that’s probably not gonna happen until the season’s over.”

Michael Porter Jr. led the way with 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting — he’s averaging more than 20 per game since the break — but bench role players saved Denver this time when it mattered most. Jokic was able to stay on the bench until the 6:29 mark of the fourth quarter thanks to an impressive stint from the second unit, which featured Aaron Gordon at the five and Justin Holiday helping Jamal Murray in the backcourt rather than Jackson.

Braun scored seven points during that stretch, including a corner 3-pointer and a contested floater that he celebrated with the “too small” gesture. A powerful Peyton Watson dunk forced an Erik Spoelstra timeout as Jokic and company prepared to check back in. Then Braun passed the baton to Jackson, whose rotations recently have corresponded more with Jokic’s to avoid lineups with both Jackson and Murray.

After Jackson buried three consecutive jumpers, the Nuggets never relinquished a double-digit lead in the last three minutes. They had trailed 71-67 late in the third quarter.

“Everybody knows that Reggie has been struggling to make shots, never for a lack of effort,” Malone said. “The guy is in the gym all the time.”

Denver used an early 15-0 run to build a 13-point lead that it narrowly held onto the remainder of the first half, even after Miami answered with its own 12-2 punch. The Finals rematch then settled into another rock fight, like the one two weeks ago when the Nuggets prevailed 103-97.

Jumpers weren’t falling, in spite of a good pregame omen. A Nuggets player development coach exclaimed that “it’s gonna be a good night” after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope drilled a catch-and-shoot corner 3-pointer to finish his warm-up routine. Not quite. The three-and-D guard had to rely more on his defense, producing two easy dunks for himself off steals while shooting 1 of 5 from three.

Murray’s 14 points required 14 shots. Denver was 33% from three. Miami was 24%. Scoring came easy for nobody except Porter, and even he cooled off a bit after a perfect first half beyond the arc. Jimmy Butler was contained to 15 points on 16 attempts with Gordon mirroring his minutes. Bam Adebayo had nine points in the third quarter as the Heat rallied for a brief lead, but he amassed only eight points in the other three quarters combined.

“Your fourth quarter’s gotta be your best quarter; it’s closing time,” Malone said. “… When the game is hanging in the balance, we have great confidence that we can get timely stops, timely rebounds.”

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