Even on a “off night,” Nikola Jokic finds a way to carry the Nuggets

May 21, 2023, 7:50 AM

Nikola Jokic...

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Nikola Jokic didn’t think he had a bad game on Saturday night.

“I was just trying to open my man up,” said the Joker after Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. “I think I played good. I missed a couple of layups, but I think I was focused and ready to go.”

Doubters, haters and nervous nellies throughout the twitter-verse were officially freaking out or having the time of their lives as Jokic was seemingly suffering through an off night.

Jokic didn’t score in the first quarter. Jokic got into foul trouble that landed him on the bench for a huge stretch of the third. Jokic had his four-game triple-double streak snapped.

Yet somehow, Jokic shot better than LeBron James. He finished with 24 points to King James’ 23, sealing the 119-108 win with his clutch play on the court and his coaching on the bench.

“At the end of the game, (Jokic) and Jamal (Murray) were playing a two-man game,” detailed coach Michael Malone. “I have to give credit where credit is due. That was Nikola’s call. He said on the bench, ‘Let’s go to this play. Let me and Jamal play, whole side of the floor and we’ll make the right reads.’ We milked that down the stretch. So, coach Jokic did a great job tonight.”

Jamal Murray, who was once again sensational, lighting up the Lakers for 30 first-half points, said with a smile that Jokic was trying to explain things in his “best English” as he went into coach mode.

“We had an action that was working,” explained Jokic. “When I’m trying to say something fast, (his English) is really bad.”

This moment typifies everything that is awesome with this year’s Nuggets team that even ardent fans of the team still struggle to understand. While certain supporters of the team are quick to freak out, this team never panics. While some commentators think if Jokic or Murray struggles, it’s finite, that rarely is the case.

Similar to how Murray didn’t find his game until the fourth in Game 2 against the Lakers, the same could be said for Jokic in Game 3. However, what always matters more is not how you start, but how you finish.

“That’s the thing about Nikola,” detailed Malone. “You can throw whatever defense you want at him. His IQ is through the roof and he’s gonna figure out what you are doing. He will figure out his game and how he can make those around him better which ultimately makes him the great player that he is.”

Malone detailed the special quality that makes Jokic so unique.

“He uplifts everybody around him on a nightly basis,” said Malone. “Even though the game throughout wasn’t his game, in the fourth quarter, demanding the ball, calming us down and making right play after right play. It’s just a thing of beauty watching him out there.”

What is confounding is the true unselfish nature of this team. It’s hard in a “me first” sports culture to comprehend a team that is truly playing for each other.

It looks weird.

“I never doubt my team,” said Jokic. “I know they are capable. We have some really good players who can step up.”

Not only did Murray further cement his growing playoff legacy, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope buried clutch shot after clutch shot. Jeff Green and Bruce Brown hit gargantuan back-to-back fourth quarter threes. Michael Porter Jr. once again, proved he’s not only a superior scorer, but his defense is growing by leaps and bounds, as he took down 10 boards. Never mind the dogged determination of Aaron Gordon who shoulders the toughest defensive assignment every night without complaint.

Only rookie Christian Braun is having some struggles. His time on the court shrunk to just three minutes. But nobody is giving up on the rook.

That being said, it’s clear there are seven players who will take the Nuggets past the Lakers. How it shakes out in the NBA finals is still to be determined. But, what matters most is this team knows how to win in a wide variety of ways, even when Jokic is “off.”

“There wasn’t panic,” said Malone about the Joker on the bench. “Okay, he’s out. That means somebody else has to step up. I think that’s something our team has done time and time again.”

This magical season has a sense of professionalism that has recently been described by pundits as “boring.” Some folks are bemoaning a tragic NBA Finals of the Nuggets and the Heat as a ratings catastrophe. It’s as if doing your job well is considered weak.

“I play every game the same way,” said Jokic when asked if he’s doing anything special for the playoffs. “If you have the same approach it helps you through the season and your career.”

Murray told Lisa Salters in the postgame on the court interview “five more to go” when asked how he was feeling about the win.

The shock that is seeping out of every pore for those who don’t know this Nuggets team is based on their own laziness to not dig deeper into a team that isn’t surprised by anything they are currently accomplishing.

How dare this Nuggets team expect to beat the Lakers?!?!

“It’s a must-win every night,” said Jokic defiantly when asked about the determination to win Game 3 that technically wasn’t a must-win game. “We came here with good focus and played really good. In global, it was really good.”

Teams that are 0-3 in the NBA playoffs are 0-149 for their series. There is zero chance this Lakers team defies NBA history to beat this Nuggets team. Whether it ends Monday night in Game 4 in Los Angeles or Game 5 on Wednesday in Denver is up in the air. But, like death, taxes and Malone rage timeouts, it’s gonna happen.

There’s only one thing that you shouldn’t expect out of Jokic.

“I don’t want to be coach,” the two-time MVP said. “It’s the worst job on the planet.”

Hey coach Malone, put that in your pipe and smoke it.



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