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Heat still confident, Nuggets remain focused as NBA Finals reach Game 4

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MIAMI (AP) — Jimmy Butler showed up in plush blue slippers for what was officially called practice. Kyle Lowry was trying to distract him during an interview session. Nikola Jokic continued to say how he doesn’t care about statistics. Jamal Murray talked about all the fun he’s having.

At this point, there isn’t a lot of off-day, on-court work for the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat.

Game 4 of the NBA Finals is Friday night in Miami, and it’ll be the only time in the series that there’s just one day off between contests. The Nuggets — behind a historic effort from Jokic and Murray — reclaimed the lead in the series with a 109-94 win Wednesday night, and could take a commanding 3-1 edge with a win in Game 4.

“It’s a lot of fun. A lot of fun. We’re all having fun,” Murray said Thursday. “Trying to solve this puzzle together. We’ve all been dreaming about getting to this stage. We have vets in the league that haven’t made it this far in their 15, 16 years of playing. So, we don’t want to take this opportunity for granted, knowing that this is not an everyday thing. It takes a lot of work to be here.”

Murray and Jokic each had 30-point triple-doubles in the Game 3 win, the first time that’s ever happened in NBA history. Jokic had the first known game of at least 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in finals history. As always, he greeted news of his latest statistical accomplishment with a resounding yawn, preferring instead to solely focus on what he called the chess game between the Heat and Nuggets.

“They are one move, we are another move,” Jokic said. “I think this is the time where the players show what they’ve got.”

There were 15 other instances of teammates having triple-doubles in the same game, but never of the 30-point variety — and for that to happen not just in the playoffs but the NBA Finals only adds to the historic level of the performance.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Nuggets coach Michael Malone was wasting any time thinking about that.

“As I watched the film, as we watched it as a staff and then with the team, there was nothing about the historical night that it was,” Malone said. “We’re addressing all the areas where we have to be better.”

Malone loves to quote stats, and it’s safe to assume he knows that a 2-1 lead in the finals guarantees nothing. Boston had such a lead over Golden State last year. Phoenix led Milwaukee 2-1 the year before that. Golden State was up 2-1 on Cleveland in 2016, the Cavaliers had that same lead on the Warriors in 2015, San Antonio had that lead over the Heat in 2013 and the Heat had that lead over Dallas in 2011.

And all of those 2-1 series leaders lost the finals. It’s happened that way six times in the last 10 instances, seven times in the last 14 instances going back to Miami’s rally past Dallas in 2006. A 2-1 series lead used to be automatic — from 1979 through 2005, there were 22 instances of a team going up 2-1. All 22 of those teams went on to win the title. But starting with the Heat in 2006, that 2-1 lead hasn’t meant a whole lot.

“Stay in the saddle, stay the course,” Heat forward Kevin Love said. “That’s the biggest thing we can do. We have a game plan that is proven to work. … If anybody is capable of it, we are. Continue to drill, continue to stay true to our concept, no slip-ups. If we do that, we feel we can give ourselves a chance.”

Murray and Jokic were tremendous, and Denver’s 58-33 rebounding edge in Game 3 was not solely a byproduct of effort or lack thereof. But there were also things Heat coach Erik Spoelstra believes are correctable for Friday.

“The more experience you have, the more perspective you have about how difficult this really is,” Spoelstra said. “These are extremely difficult challenges. You end up being even more grateful for the opportunities to compete at the highest level. That’s what we all want. This is the stage that you want to be able to compete and have everything decided between those four lines and find out how your team stacks up. But it is tough. … It’s the highest level of competition.”

The Heat season has gone this way almost from opening night, a never-ending back-and-forth between ups and downs, win a few, lose a few, all capped by a postseason run that took a No. 8 seed to the NBA Finals. Win on Friday, and the series is tied. That’s all Miami can ask for right now.

“We’re going to come out with a lot more energy,” Butler said. “We’re going to compete at a high level. We’re going to get one at home.”

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