LOS ANGELES — In the fourth quarter of Game 3, Nikola Jokic took over, both on the court and in the Nuggets’ huddle.
Jokic scored 15 fourth-quarter points. He shot 5-7 from the field and scored or assisted on seven of Denver’s 12 fourth-quarter field goals. He was dominant, assertive, and performed like a two-time MVP when the lights were at their brightest. And it turns out Jokic was calling the plays that led to most of the Nuggets’ late fourth-quarter baskets too.
During a fourth-quarter timeout, Jokic took command of Denver’s huddle. He told his teammates that one action and one play was going to finish the Lakers in Game 3: The Jokic-Jamal Murray two-man game. Jokic directed his team to clear one side of the floor so he and Murray could go to work on the other.
“We’ll make the right reads,” Jokic said during the timeout.
That’s exactly what happened. The Nuggets ran the Jokic-Murray two-man game to perfection on most of their final possessions of Denver’s 119-108 Game 3 win. They were able to score with ease.
“Jok did a great job of clearly, in English, speaking to the team in the huddle about where everybody should be,” Murray said.
The Nuggets scored their final three baskets of Game 3 via the Jokic-Murray two-man action with Michael Porter Jr., Bruce Brown, and Jeff Green spacing the floor in the same exact three spots. But Denver scored differently on each possession.
Play 1: Jokic 3
Play 2: Murray layup
Play 3: Porter 3
It was a masterclass in read-and-react basketball.
“You can throw whatever defense you want at him,” Michael Malone said. “His IQ is just through the roof, and he’s going to figure out what you’re doing.”
“Coach Jokic did a great job tonight.”
Jokic wasn’t his typical dominant self throughout most of Game 3. He shot just 4-12 throughout the game’s first three quarters and deferred to Murray on the offensive end of the floor whenever he could. It wasn’t the worst option. Murray’s 30 first-half points paced the Nuggets and Jokic said postgame that a lot of his first half was about feeding the hot hand.
But then Jokic stepped up like he always does when the game calls for it, and he did it with his play and his voice. Jokic’s leadership has leveled up this season and this isn’t the first time that he’s spoken up in a timeout.
It led to the Nuggets carrying a patient, calm and focused mindset onto the court.
“We just wanted to not rush anything,” Murray said. “Once we have space, we know we can find different holes and seams and gaps in the defense. We just took our time. We didn’t rush anything. I think we made a good play every time out of it. No rush, that was the biggest thing.”
The Nuggets were unbelievably calm throughout the most stressful tipping points of Game 3. It’s something that stood out whenever the Lakers grabbed any bit of momentum Saturday night. It speaks to the maturity of this Nuggets team and Michael Malone, who’s currently coaching in his fifth NBA playoffs. This isn’t a young team anymore. It’s a veteran group with championship DNA. Denver has been ready for everything thrown its way this postseason.
The Nuggets take after Jokic in that respect. After Jokic picked up his fourth foul at the 7:24 mark of the third quarter, a play that was subsequentially challenged by Denver and upheld by the officials, he calmly took his seat on the bench where he would remain for the rest of the quarter. A few rows above the Nuggets’ sideline, Jokic’s brothers didn’t react the same. Strahinja and Nemanja Jokic were standing, shouting, and voicing their displeasure. They weren’t happy. Below them, Jokic just smiled and laughed.
Jokic never gets too high or too low. He has stayed incredibly composed throughout the most intense situations that the playoffs have had to offer. Nothing ever surprises him. Jokic is never caught off-guard. It’s one of his many true gifts as an NBA player.
You’d think that those qualities would translate to coaching. Jokic proved late in Game 3 that he has a feel for the moment with how he directed his team into the two-man action with Murray that eventually closed the Lakers out. But that’s not in his future full-time. All the coaching that Jokic does will be while he’s still wearing a Nuggets’ uniform.
“I don’t want to be a coach,” Jokic said. “That’s the worst job on the planet for sure.”