If there’s an easy way to understand the level of greatness that Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has achieved in his career, it might be in the fact that I hesitate to call last night’s 49-14-10 game against the Clippers, which ended with Jokic making a reality-bending cross-court pass to set up the game-winning shot in overtime, the best performance of the big fella’s career. It was certainly as good and as dominant as an individual performance can be, but so many of Jokic’s heroic games and overstuffed box scores have washed over me by now that it’s hard to separate one from the other. This is just kind of what he does now.
Throughout last night’s game, Jokic was playing to the same steady beat he has been following since claiming last season’s MVP trophy. The Nuggets, who have been without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. virtually all season, still manage to play like one of the best teams in the league when Jokic is on the floor, then transform into one of the worst teams in the league the second he takes a seat on the bench. That dynamic lends most Nuggets games a familiar rhythm: Jokic dominates early and builds a lead for his teammates in the first quarter; the Nuggets’ opponents go on a huge run in the second quarter while Jokic catches a breather on the bench; Jokic spends the rest of the game seeing if he can play well enough to dig his team out of the hole that was dug in his absence.
If there’s a downside to seeing Jokic play under these conditions, it is that his creative genius can appear blunted, just ever so slightly, during the games in which he has to work hardest to keep the score close. Possessions that may have ended with a slick give-and-go to Murray or a no-look pass to Porter in the corner instead finish with Jokic bruising away in the low post, or riding his defender from the three-point line to the rim for a layup. It’s all very satisfying and astonishingly effective, but sometimes I sense that Jokic would much rather be spending time orchestrating possessions than finishing them (perhaps this is why he’s been particularly grumpy with referees and opponents this season).
So if there is something that truly stands out from last night’s performance against the Clippers, it is the Nuggets’ final possession of the game. First let us savor the fact that there is an NBA franchise that employs a seven-foot, 280-pound center for whom it is totally normal to call for an isolation behind the three-point line with 10 seconds left to play in a tie game. And now let us wildly pump our fists at the fact that, after spending yet another game dutifully battling for rebounds and putting the ball through the hoop in order to keep the Nuggets close, Jokic finally got a chance to do the thing he was born to do, which is punish a double-team with a pass that nobody else on Earth can make.
That, my friends, is the genuine Nikola Jokic Experience, and so was the big man’s attempt to downplay the genius that was on display. “I kind of make those passes on a regular basis,” he said after the game. “It’s a normal pass.” Sure, man, whatever you say. Please continue to be normal.