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No Weapon Formed Against Nikola Jokic Shall Prosper

Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets shoots over Rudy Gobert (27) of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the second quarter at Ball Arena in Denver on Tuesday, May 14, 2024.
Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

A common refrain heard in the days following Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals was that Nikola Jokic might have finally met his match. The Minnesota Timberwolves, built by the same GM who put together Jokic's Nuggets, had pushed Denver into an 0-2 hole by throwing an endless supply of seven-footers and long-armed wings into Jokic's face. After those two games, the second a shocking humiliation, the recipe had seemingly been revealed: Get big, get physical, close down his angles, and Jokic will start to wobble. The team that was built to beat the Denver Nuggets was doing just that.

Here's how things have gone for the Timberwolves' Jokic-killing defense over the course of the last three games: Jokic has scored 99 points on 40-of-66 shooting, grabbed 28 rebounds, and dished 29 assists. Game 5, which the Nuggets won 112-97 last night, may have been Jokic's masterpiece. He's had plenty of great games before, and the 40-7-13 on 15-of-22 shooting he put up last night certainly qualifies, but what set this performance apart was how it was achieved. Throughout Game 5 I got the sense, perhaps for the first time in the nine seasons I've been watching him, that Jokic was trying to be mean.

The target of Jokic's bullying was Rudy Gobert, the four-time Defensive Player of the Year for whom the Timberwolves sold their future in order to acquire and install at the center of their anti-Jokic defense system. Jokic, who never really hunts his shot and constantly talks about his preference to facilitate for teammates rather than score himself, spent all of Game 5 mercilessly hunting Gobert. Jokic spent the night engineering offensive sets that would yield him a 1-on-1 matchup with Gobert, which he then used as an opportunity to construct a truly demoralizing display of bucket-getting. Here are five representative plays, ranked by their cruelty.

5. Turnaround fadeaway in the middle of the lane

4. Driving layup through contact

3. Haha... what... how did he...

2. Nooo, c'mon man. That's not—that kind of stuff isn't allowed

1. Pretty fucked up, if you ask me

Despite the three MVP awards and the championship ring, I still found myself caught off-guard by Jokic taking over a playoff game in this particular manner. Maybe that's by design. Maybe all the self-deprecating postgame quotes and constant talk about wanting to play the "right way" are meant to give opponents a false belief: that Jokic is too passive, too nice, to ever really meet a defense like this one with enough force to overwhelm it. That belief was certainly proven out in the first two games of this series, but now we are seeing a nastiness from Jokic that only ever occasionally reveals itself. It was there when he said, "Brother, I have 47" to Gobert all those years ago, and it was there again last night.

Even though the balance and momentum of this series have entirely flipped, I don't think the Timberwolves were necessarily wrong to arm themselves with all that size and length. They really did smother and constrict the Nuggets in a way that no other team has been able to in the Jokic era. But the wonderful thing about a seven-game series is the opportunities for adaptation that it presents. Jokic met a roster and a defensive scheme, both years in the making, specifically engineered to stop him, and he had to figure out what to do about it. In this series he has seen Jamal Murray physically overpowered and erased, Michael Porter Jr.'s shooting dry up, and Anthony Edwards get wherever he wants to go. These are problems that Jokic has been asked to solve on the fly, and he has now done that in three straight games. That, more than anything else, is what defines a truly great player—the ability to find solutions where there didn't appear to be any.

This series is far from over. It's entirely possible that Edwards and the Timberwolves will find their own solutions in Game 6, sending Jokic and the Nuggets into Game 7 with an entirely new list of issues to resolve. If that happens, Rudy Gobert better be ready.

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