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Nikola Jokić Paints a Masterpiece in Game One

Brendan Vogt Avatar
May 17, 2023

Nikola Jokić – A+

The 2023 Denver Nuggets are made of something different than previous iterations. They’ve taken hits, weathered storms together, and refitted many times. The ship that left the harbor long ago is still recognizable. Same captain. Same name. But she’s made of new wood now, with a primarily new and wiser crew on board to help her reach the ultimate destination. Even the familiar faces are older, tanner, and their hands calloused. Time never stops sailing.

At the center of everything in Denver, even the change, is Nikola Jokić. He’s grown immeasurably since these two teams last met. He’s seen every coverage imaginable; he’s played with and without the requisite talent to compete at the highest level. So as we examine this series in juxtaposition with that bubble meeting, there’s no better place to start, as always, than 15. He’s gone from a bonafide superstar to the best player alive. He played an extraordinary game to take an early lead in the Western Conference Finals.

From the opening tip, it was clear the Lakers were dealing with a different player. Jokić put up 8 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists in the first quarter. Six of those 12 rebounds came on offense, which is how he picked up his early buckets. Then he dipped into his bag.

If the help came, Jokić picked them apart. If it didn’t, he was comfortable attacking Anthony Davis. Davis is an unbelievable defender, and his length affected Jokić on multiple occasions. But Jokić didn’t allow him to live in the paint. He attacked on the move. He let it fly from the perimeter. And he was a black hole in a rebounding position. Jokić did what he needed to do: force an early adjustment from Lakers coach Darvin Ham.

The Lakers sized up in the second half and put Rui Hachimura on Jokić, while AD handled the Aaron Gordon assignment instead. This essentially allowed Davis to loom in the paint like some Lovecraftian figure. That’s when he’s able to make life difficult for Jokić. It’s something Denver has time to take a look at and hopefully find the appropriate adjustment. Undoubtedly, the Lakers will employ the tactic again. Michael Malone, his staff, and Jokić must be ready.

When the dust settled, Jokić and the Nuggets stood victorious in Game One. The big fella finished with 34 points, 21 rebounds, and 14 assists on 12 of 17 shooting. He blocked two shots. It was a performance that pleased the basketball gods themselves.

Jamal Murray – A-

Jamal Murray lingered on the injury report as questionable right up until tip-off. Of course, everyone in Denver knew his status was never truly in doubt. A nagging ear infection and the remnants of a “bug” that ran through the team plagued Murray before, during, and after the game. But he was always going to play.

The Lakers attacked Murray relentlessly on defense, particularly in the non-Jokić minutes. The Nuggets are willing to switch in that scenario, and the Lakers want easy switches with LeBron James on the floor. Murray was dragged into the ring over and over again. That particular development seems untenable, except for James settling for a 3 late in the game. Perhaps he was exhausted. But his eyes lit up whenever he drew the switch all the same.

The context is important before bashing Murray’s effort: he’s genuinely sick. That makes what he accomplished offensively all the more impressive.

Murray thrived off a delightful mixture of mercilessness and decisiveness. If the Lakers went under a pick or died on one, he let it fly. Murray shot 4 of 8 from deep — both satisfactory numbers. If he saw a lane to attack the rim, he took it, knowing full well Jokić was there to clean up his misses should the shot blockers commit. He was great off DHOs, in the pick and roll, and knew where his spots were in the mid to low post. He and 15 ran a clinic out there.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – A-

Pope was involved in the last clash between these organizations. He was just on the wrong side of the fence. He killed the Nuggets as a Laker, but is doing his best to make things right in 2023. He scored 21 points in Game One on 9 of 17 shooting. Of his nine field goal attempts, eight were assisted by Jokić. Pope played off the best player in the world as if they’ve been teamed up their entire careers. Malone also awarded him the coveted DPOG chain for his valiant effort on the other end.

Pope is a perfect fit in Denver. He said so himself at the podium. He’s featured now in multiple series featuring these All-Time talents but hasn’t just been along for the ride on either occasion. He’s a difference maker, not a coattail rider. Thank goodness he’s wearing the proper uniform this time.

Michael Porter Jr. – B

As everyone predicted, Michael Porter Jr. is emerging as the ultimate team player. He waits for his turn on offense, fulfills his rebounding duties, and is putting together an inspiring turnaround on defense. Porter’s gone from the hunted — think Jordan Poole — to a plus defender. I’m a biased messenger, but I challenge you to watch his work closely. He’s playing his part in a deep postseason run.

Porter shot 12 times Tuesday night, the second-lowest mark of any Denver starter. It’s hard to stay engaged when the ball isn’t finding you, but his three-ball found the bottom of the net on three of his six attempts. The Lakers opted to guard him with Austin Reaves, an avenue Denver could further explore should the half-court magic dry up. Porter looked eager to score in the first quarter. He shot right over the smaller defender on multiple occasions.

His most significant contribution came, of course, in the form of a hustle play. The Nuggets led by four with 2:40 remaining as James’ runner went in and out. Jokić fought AD for the rebound, which turned into a loose ball. Rui got a hand on it, but Porter hit the deck and wrested it free. He found KCP, who found Jamal Murray, who found AG for a thunderous and crucial alley-oop.

Aaron Gordon – C+

Gordon shot out of the gate in the first quarter. He beat LA to the punch and the rim early, scoring 8 points on 3 of 6 shooting. His production fell off a cliff from there. As mentioned, the Lakers eventually switched their defense, conceding the dunker spot looks or potential open jumpers. They welcome the latter and are well-equipped to handle the former. Gordon and the staff have work to do heading into Game Two.

Gordon’s potential defensive impact was significantly mitigated by the switch-heavy nature of the game. Also of note, AG shot 4 of 8 from the free-throw line. He’s been great there in the postseason, but we’re all holding our breath for the other shoe to drop.

Bruce Brown – B

This series might be less about winning the non-Jokić minutes so much as it’s about surviving them. The Lakers are a deep team. They find production from their small army of role players. This time, it was Rui that stepped up again. He didn’t just hold his own against Jokić; he also poured in 17 points on 8 of 11 shooting. Denver needed a role-player to answer the call off the bench. It was Brown. He attacked the rim fearlessly on his way to 16 points.

Christian Braun – C-

Braun’s looking a little young for the task for the first time in his impressive rookie season. Harsh it may read, it’s entirely understandable that even a rookie with his pedigree might look flustered in the WCF.

Jeff Green – D+

Green didn’t get a lot right in his 17:35 on the floor. He shot 1 of 3, grabbed just one rebound, and flubbed a great Jokić pass leading to a turnover.

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