The widespread perception of Nikola Jokic as a fun-loving silly fella without the fire to turn his opponents to mush is, to a certain degree, understandable. Even though Jokic is one of the best players in the league, he also is the pinkest man in the NBA. His friendship with pick-and-roll buddy Jamal Murray is so special that even Knicks fans can unclench their brains long enough to smile, he can’t jump over a pine cone, and his endemic goofiness extends to his actual play on the court in high-leverage situations. Also, Jokic’s devotion to setting his teammates up doesn’t hew to the standards of stone-faced killer.
But throughout the playoffs and particularly in the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers, Jokic has played with an undeniable edge to him. Anthony Davis has always been a poisonous matchup for Jokic, but through three games, the Nuggets’ big man is putting up numbers and taking it right to Davis or whoever else the Lakers throw at him. Game 3 was the perfect encapsulation of Jokic’s newfound relentlessness. The Nuggets absolutely needed to win last night to avoid getting closer to the post-bubble fate of “receive meal and take bus,” and Jokic immediately set the tone. The Serbian center played the entire quarter and scored 11 of Denver’s 29 points, taking it upon himself to go directly at Davis. The second basket in the clip below is illustrative, as he gets the mismatch with Kyle Kuzma and goes straight to the hoop. That sort of ruthless mismatch exploitation is a LeBron staple, not the fare of someone with the rep of “meme guy.”
It’s not just that he scored a bunch and hit a weird fallaway push shot to end the quarter. Jokic’s strong first quarter was an example of his aggression, but the best instance came in Game 2, when Davis ripped Denver’s heart out with a three-pointer at the buzzer. Davis was put in the position of needing to hit that game-winning shot because Jokic had just spent that quarter on a rampage. He scored the Nuggets’ final 11 points of the night, shooting over and around Davis. The would-be game-winner was the simplest of the bunch: He put his shoulder into Davis’s chest until he scored the ball. This is not the kind of big-time move one might expect out of a round center who always looks like he’s about to sneeze, but Jokic isn’t that player anymore. Like Jamal Murray, he’s a killer, especially when the Nuggets are facing elimination, which is almost every game they play.
(Naturally, that play happened seconds after Jokic gave Denver the lead with a hilarious volleyball tip-in.)
In the regular season, Jokic was registering 14.7 shots and 3.5 three-point shots per game; he would habitually pass up open threes or pass out of mismatches to the open man. Now, in the playoffs, he’s up to 18.5 and 5.4 respectively, which changes the texture of the defense by drawing Davis or Dwight Howard out of the paint. Jokic is still setting his teammates up when the opportunities are there, but his embrace of the lead scorer role—his 30.9 usage percentage is the highest on the team over the past two series—makes Denver significantly more dangerous. The second- and third-order effects of tiring Davis out and putting foul trouble into play don’t hurt either. Mike Malone may have raised a few eyebrows by comparing the success of Jokic’s multifaceted game to LeBron’s, but he’s not wrong.