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As he goes toe-to-toe with Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Jokic is proving something new

Harrison Wind Avatar
September 14, 2020

Nikola Jokic had to crack a smile. The shot was just that ridiculous.

Before the 19-point second-half comeback. Before the Nuggets outscored the Clippers 64-35 over the third and fourth quarters of Game 6. Before Denver forced another Game 7, Jokic was stuck at the top of the three-point arc in the second quarter with the shot clock winding down.

So he took a dribble with his right hand and one-two stepped into his patented Sombor Shuffle, the signature shot Jokic invented in 2018 while rehabbing from a sprained left ankle. At the time, Jokic found it easier to jump off his right foot rather than his injured left. Thus, the shot was born. This particular wrong-footed fadeaway during Sunday’s Game 6 had such a high trajectory that it disappeared from the camera shot for a good few seconds before dropping through the rim.

It was the first of his four three-pointers in Game 6 where Jokic poured in a game-high 34 points along with 14 rebounds and seven assists in Denver’s 111-98 come-from-behind win. It was another breathtaking performance from Jokic who’s averaging 26 points on 53% shooting from the field and 44% from three, 12 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game in the series.

“Tonight Nikola Jokic was the best player in the world,” Michael Porter Jr. said shortly after Denver was able to force another Game 7.

“He’s hitting one-legged step-backs, fading away off one leg with a hand in his face consecutive times. I’d say he’s the best player in the world,” echoed Jamal Murray. “And he’s unselfish.”

That’s quite an endorsement, but you won’t find any opposition to Porter and Murray’s claim here. In Game 6, Jokic looked like the best player in the world. He was the catalyst to the Nuggets’ 17-0 third-quarter run that completely wiped out the Clippers’ near 20 point lead in around five minutes. Jokic’s 11 points in the fourth then sealed Denver’s win.

Jokic’s brilliant play this series has also come while he’s sharing the floor with reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who according to some, currently holds the title of “best player in the world” that Porter and Murray are thinking should change hands. Jokic has gone toe-to-toe with Leonard this series and you haven’t had to squint to see that there hasn’t been much separation between the two through six games.

Jokic has played right with Leonard, the top player he’s faced in the playoffs, and their offensive numbers in the series are similar. At 25-years-old, Jokic is proving he can go blow for blow with arguably the best player in the league.

Defensively, Leonard chased Murray around for a lot of Game 6 and has shadowed him often throughout the series. He’s been effective — no surprise there — and has so far teamed with Paul George and Patrick Beverley to keep Murray from a 30-plus point game in the series. Murray had four 30-plus point games in the first round against the Jazz.

It’s a tougher individual defensive assignment than what Jokic has been up against. But don’t discount the team-wide defensive effort Jokic has contributed to. The once-disastrous Nuggets defense has held the playoff’s second-best offense from the first round to 105 points or fewer in four out of six games.

Jokic is averaging 2.3 deflections per game against the Clippers, the best mark of any center in the playoffs. He has seven blocks over his last five games too. You can’t stop Kawhi, you just have to contain him. And whether it’s been keen second-line defense or Denver’s bigs being up at the level of the screen as Leonard tries to gain an advantage, the Nuggets have done just that. It’s impossible for Jerami Grant, Gary Harris and Torrey Craig to limit Leonard and George 1-on-1 for an entire game, but Jokic and Denver’s help defense has been strong all series. Leonard shot just 8-18 in Game 6.

Denver’s second-half numbers from Game 6 almost look fictitious. Leonard and George combined to shoot 6-21 from the floor and the Clippers scored just 35 points over the third and fourth quarters. As a team, LA shot only 26% from the field and 27% from three in the second half.

“I don’t know how we did it to be honest,” Jokic said. “That’s amazing team. They are really talented well-coached. They are really scary.”

Even after the Nuggets roared back from down 15 points in Game 5 against the Jazz and then again from 15 down in Game 5 vs. the Clippers, Sunday’s Game 6 was Denver’s most daring comeback yet. The Nuggets trailed by 19 in the third against one of the NBA’s stone-cold finishers in Leonard. Late in the quarter, Murray was clotheslined at the rim and then flattened by George under the basket.

Of course, Murray stayed in the game, forced an eight second violation late in the third and then minutes later spun around George and climbed the ladder for an abrupt two-handed jam for his third basket of the quarter. At that point you could tell the Nuggets weren’t done.

“That is a tough, resilient group of you know what,” Michael Malone said. “I love our team. I love our team. I love our toughness.”

Between the third and fourth quarters, cameras showed Murray on his back getting stretched out by Nuggets director of sports medicine Steve Short.

“Even if he have a broken rib or whatever he will continue for sure,” Jokic said of his pick-and-roll partner.

If it’s Murray’s fighting spirit that the Nuggets take on in elimination games, which Denver is now 5-0 in this postseason, it’s Jokic’s stoic demeanor that this team also absorbs when its backs are up against the wall. Most teams take on the personality of their star player and that’s definitely the case with these Nuggets. Malone dubbed Jokic “a picture of calmness” on Sunday. That’s what Denver was in the fourth quarter of Game 6 when it out-executed and out-classed the veteran Clippers.

“Maybe it’s going to sound weird, or funny, or whatever. But we don’t care,” Jokic said about Denver’s recent comeback efforts. “We’re just going to go out there and have fun.”

“We don’t have pressure. I think all the pressure is on them.”

For as dazzling as Jokic’s Game 6 was, it was another team effort from the Nuggets that ultimately forced a Game 7. Harris scored 16 points in a team-high 42 minutes and recorded three steals on three-straight Clipper possessions in the second quarter

Michael Porter Jr. added 13 points and seven rebounds off the bench and hit three of his six three-point attempts. Denver moved the ball well in Game 6 too, a requirement to beating the Clippers’ rangy defense, and all five Nuggets starters each had two or more assists.

“The second half of our team basketball was amazing,” Jokic said.

Ahead of a sixth elimination game in these playoffs already, there are no adjectives left to describe this group of players. They’re resilient beyond belief. Their spirit is unbreakable. Their belief is inspiring.

Regardless of what happens in Tuesday’s Game 7, this is an all-time Nuggets team. Coming back from down 3-1 in two-straight playoff series to force back-to-back Game 7’s means the never-say-die Nuggets should be cemented in the annals of Nuggets history. They should forever be discussed alongside the 1976 ABA Nuggets that made the Finals, Alex English’s 1985 Western Conference Finals team, Dikembe Mutombo’s 1994 squad that upset the Sonics in the first round, and the 2009 Nuggets led by Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups.

They’re that special.

“We have no quit in us,” Porter said.

Bring on another Game 7.


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