Eyes misty, shoulders slumped, head facing the floor, Nikola Jokic lingered at his locker like a gray cloud minutes after the Denver Nuggets’ dream season came to an end. Joker, as Mike Miller nicknamed him as a wisecracking rookie, wearing only compression shorts decorated with fishing lures, couldn’t mask his dejection. It mattered little that he’d just scored 29 points or that he’d put together one of the most impressive postseason debuts by any player in NBA history. The only thing going through his mind in that moment was guilt that Denver’s deepest playoff run in a decade came to an end because of him.
“It’s not your fault,” Juancho Hernangomez told him, an arm wrapped around his shoulders.
The sting of missing a free throw with 11 seconds left that would’ve given Denver one last-gasp effort and going 3 of 10 in the fourth quarter of Game 7, a 100-96 loss, was still too fresh for Jokic to view his postseason debut with any sort of perspective. In 14 playoff games, he averaged 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists. He did it on 50.6%/39.3%/84.6% shooting splits and minimal rest (the final minutes ticker: 39.7 per game), squashing any questions about how his game would translate to the playoffs with a sledgehammer.
All that, and Jokic still felt compelled to take the blame for his team’s run coming to an end, perhaps the surest sign yet that the Serbian center who entered the league four years ago as a virtual unknown is one of the rarest, most valuable commodities in basketball: a true franchise player.
“After the loss, he thought it was his fault because he missed shots at the end,” Hernangomez told BSN Denver. “But I told him thanks to him, we are here. He won so many games by himself. We did a lot of bad things today. Not just misses from Joker. I think he played really good.”
Remember the Nikola Jokic two years ago who said he was just here to prop up four-time All-Star Paul Millsap? The Jokic who thought of himself as a supporting cast member is long gone now. In his place is a player who understands exactly what he is, how good can be.
“They look at me as a leader,” Jokic said. “They look at me as their best player. I missed on the free throw in the end. I missed the free throw in the four overtime game. Probably I feel responsible because I missed a lot of shots. I’m supposed to make some of those.”
Jokic was Denver’s rock as it dealt injury after injury during the regular season. Come playoff time, opponents were reduced to double-teaming him and praying that Denver’s shooters couldn’t knock down open 3s. All Gregg Popovich could do by the end of San Antonio’s first-round series against Denver was sit back and marvel.
“He’s magnificent,” Popovich said. “Just magnificent.”
Jokic had four triple-doubles in the playoffs. In Game 6 in San Antonio, the first closeout opportunity of his career, he scored 43 points on 19-of-30 shooting. His 37-point, nine-rebound, six-assist performance in the series opener vs. Portland was another gem. And perhaps his most impressive feat of the postseason came in Game 3 of this series, when he had 33 points, 18 rebounds, 14 assists and played 65 minutes of a quadruple-overtime thriller.
“They were talking about, ‘I’m not in shape.’” Jokic said. “I’m in really good shape. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Even when I came here, I was maybe a little bit chubby. There is no difference even now. I’m feeling good, to be honest, out there.”
That’s why it took the basketball world until this postseason to start buzzing about Jokic: The way he looks. A player from an Eastern European country of 7 million people with a doughy exterior shouldn’t be able to dominate the best athletes in the world like Jokic does night after night. Slowly, steadily, more and more outside of Denver are starting to see Jokic for what he really is.
“He is one of the best players in the league,” Hernangomez said. “He proved that every single game. The way he can impact the game is amazing. Not just scoring but the passing skill, the rebounding. This year, I think he stepped up the communication on the team and be the leader. I think he became in his way a leader for this group.”
Teams take on their best player’s identity. It was no coincidence why Denver was one of the most unselfish groups in the league. Jokic, who assisted on 36.5% of his team’s baskets in the playoffs, might just be the best passing player in the NBA, regardless of position. It was also no coincidence why Denver was able to climb out of a 2-1 hole against San Antonio and nearly did the same against Portland: win or lose, Jokic, apart from Sunday, was serenity personified. He was practically doing bits during many of his postgame interviews.
“Someone is typing really fast,” Jokic said after Game 1. “Is that you? Good job, brother.”
The Nuggets never panicked in the playoffs, even if they came up a few missed shots short of the Western Conference Finals. As brilliant as he was on the court, Jokic, with his steady, easygoing, clinical demeanor, was equally impressive off of it. The 24-year-old’s first postseason run, one of many to come in a Nuggets uniform, was an all-timer.
“He’s arguably the best big man in the NBA,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “For him to be as emotional and upset as he was speaks to him truly caring. He knows we ask a lot of him. He was upset because he didn’t think he did enough for us to win the game tonight. I love the fact that he’s not afraid of the pressure to put this loss tonight (on him) even though we know it’s not on him. I love Nikola’s commitment to this group. And I love him as a kid. He’s wonderful to coach. I look forward to coaching him for many years.”