SAN FRANCISCO — Maybe one day this summer when he’s fishing the banks of the Great Baĉka Canal or sipping a Jelen Pivo while watching one of his horses race around Sombor’s hippodrome, Nikola Jokic will think back on the last seven months.
Perhaps he’ll reminisce about what he just accomplished. Not just the second-straight MVP but what it took to get there. The incredible amount of responsibility he had to carry every single night with Jamal Murray sidelined for the entire season and Michael Porter Jr. missing all but nine games. The double and triple-teams he faced every game while knowing he needed to score 30+ points for the Nuggets to get a win. The weight of an entire franchise’s success resting on his shoulders.
He probably won’t, because it’s just not that deep for Jokic. For the 27-year-old, this is simply work. It’s what he signed up for seven seasons ago when he arrived in Denver. He completed the job description to the best of his ability every season including this one. He did what was asked of him. Now, his work for the year is done.
“People don’t know,” Jokic said after the Nuggets were eliminated after the Warriors’ 102-98 Game 5 win Wednesday in Golden State. “Probably they think we are living the best life. It’s work. It’s a daily work. Basically like you guys, we are working every day.”
Jokic’s last shift of the season was another special one. Thirty points on 12-18 shooting, 19 rebounds and eight assists while playing on one leg for most of the second half. Jokic entered Game 5 with a tight right hamstring and aggravated it midway through Wednesday’s loss. He wasn’t close to his best self in a fourth quarter where the Warriors outscored the Nuggets 32-20 to overcome Denver’s double-digit third-quarter lead.
The burden of the last three seasons, two shortened offseasons, and the staggering night-to-night abuse that he took and the attention that he attracted this year finally caught up to him. Of course, he battled, bloody and bruised to the bitter end.
“I just told him thank you for making me better,” Draymond Green said regarding the postgame chat he had with Jokic after Game 5. “It’s absolutely incredible to play against a guy like that, incredible, incredible talent. Just told him thank you for making me better. It’s an honor and a pleasure to play against someone so talented and so skilled. Usually, when you have a guy that’s that talented and that skilled, they are a little soft. He’s far, far from soft. You know, he’s an absolutely incredible player.”
As I watched Jokic walk off the Chase Center floor late Wednesday night, hug president of basketball ops Tim Connelly and share a quick word with Stan and Josh Kroenke before entering the Nuggets’ locker room, I couldn’t help but think back to what I just witnessed this season.
It started on opening night. In the Nuggets’ first official regular-season game this season without Murray, Jokic set the tone. He put 27 points and 13 rebounds on the Suns to hand Phoenix one of its nine losses at home all year. Nine games later after the Nuggets lost Porter to a back injury that would keep him out for the rest of the season, Jokic signaled to the rest of the NBA that no one would punk his team with a 25-point, 15-rebound, 10-assist effort in Denver’s home win over Miami.
Plenty of more triumphs followed where Jokic willed an undermanned Nuggets roster past his opponent. And after each one, you asked yourself, ‘How can he possibly top this?’
Forty-nine points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in a two-point win over the Clippers in January. Forty-six points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in an eight-point victory over the Pelicans in March. Thirty-five points on 13-15 shooting, 12 rebounds and 8 assists in a win over the Thunder that same month. A casual 38 points, 18 rebounds and six assists in a double-digit win over the Lakers in April.
Through it all, Jokic never bitched and never moaned. He never complained about his subpar supporting cast. He never felt sorry for himself. He never called out his coach or publicly blasted a teammate in the media for not taking enough shots. In fact, after most losses he blamed himself.
“Honestly, no,” Michael Malone answered when I asked him if he could ever tell this season that Jokic was suffering from the burden he had to carry. “It’s not in his nature. I mean, I think the most appalling trait of any human being is self-pity. That’s one thing you’re never going to see Nikola Jokic have in his heart and mind. He’s not a guy that feels sorry for himself.”
“Was he tasked with a tremendous responsibility? Yes, he was. But I think all those guys in the locker room tried their best to help him throughout. That’s what makes him such a special player. Forty-eight wins for this team. I think people look at that and don’t give that enough credit. I think that locker room and they’re winning 48 games in the Western Conference, is incredible. Once again, last four seasons, nobody in the West has won more than the guys in that locker room.”
It’s a level of humility that we should all strive for. How can someone so good, so elite, so excellent in their field be so humble?
I know that I’ll never again experience what Nikola Jokic did this season. I know I’ll likely never see an individual offensive season like the one he just had. The counting stats and the first season in NBA history with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 500 assists. The all-time analytical achievements and the highest box plus-minus season in the history of the league. The pure night-in night-out destruction of his opponent paired with the routine and predictable collapses that typically ensued when he subbed out of a game. The ease at which Jokic dominated, mastered, and eventually broke the game of basketball this year was breathtaking.
If you witnessed it, either in a nationally televised masterclass or during a random workmanlike effort on a Tuesday in December, you know.
Jokic made the impossible seem ordinary this season.
Never forget it. I know I won’t.
“Dominant,” Will Barton said Wednesday night when describing Jokic’s season. “The best player in the league. The MVP.”
“Just doing what I expect him to do. What he always does.”