September 28, 2023

With an epic playoff run and Finals MVP, Nikola Jokić joins the pantheon of gaming legends

DENVER — Any story about Nikola Jokić must by law contain at least one “led the league in X” statistic, so let’s start here: Nikola Jokić has a tied lead in the 2023 NBA Finals in deflections. And not just on the track.

Due to the many media entrants must endure during the championship round – an aspect of the job they perform politely and professionally, albeit with a level of enthusiasm typically reserved for semi-annual tooth cleanings and judging duties – Jokić asked numerous questions about himself . What emotions went through him after his Denver Nuggets swept the Los Angeles Lakers to reach the Finals for the first time? How did he manage to hold his own as he rose to international superstardom?

What legacy in the game does Jokić want to leave behind? What responsibility does he feel to fans in Denver and Serbia to take their teams to the promised land? Where does he get his inspiration from and has he taken a moment to reflect on his path from Sombor to the brink of glory?

And each time, Jokić brushed those questions aside, diverting attention and praise to his teammates and coaches – trying to redirect the focus back to what happened between the four lines in the last game and what needed to happen between them in the next game. next game.

DENVER, COLORADO - JUNE 12: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets drives down the track against Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat during the fourth quarter in Game Five of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena on June 12, 2023 in Denver, Colorado .  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photo, User agrees to the terms of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Nikola Jokić drives the track against Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat during the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena on Monday in Denver. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

“I’m just happy that we grew as a team every year and we got better every year, and now we’re in this situation,” Jokić said after the Game 4 win that put Denver within reach of his first NBA career. championship. “[But] I mean, my journey is — I don’t think it’s that interesting.

Of course, while we respect the big guy’s insistence that the details of his life are pretty unimportant, this is wildly untrue.

Jokić has evolved from a small town in northern Serbia with a population of about 48,000 to leaving tens of thousands slack-jawed in arenas all over the NBA every night. From a “fat point guard” with a three liter a day Coca-Cola habit to “one of the most conditioned players” in the best basketball league in the world, able to average over 40 minutes per game in the NBA Finals and dominate every second. Selected from a second-round draft pick during a Quesarito commercial one of only 15 players to ever win multiple MVP trophies. From a humble reserve squad with Jusuf Nurkić to the sun in the center of the solar system for the best team in the NBA.

And now, eight years into a career that will one day bring him into the Hall of Fame, Jokić has reached the top of the mountain. After a 94-89 Game 5 win over the Miami Heat, the Nuggets are NBA champions, and Nikola Jokić – defense destroyer, brain buster, redefinition of dominance, self-deprecating horse lord – is your 2023 NBA Finals MVP, in a unanimous vote.

Jokić capped the Nuggets’ five-game series victory with another brilliant performance, scoring 28 points on 12-for-16 shooting to go with 16 rebounds, four assists and a block in 42 minutes of work, in which Denver beat Miami with 12 points defeated . For the series, he averaged 30.2 points, 14 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game, shooting 58.3% from the field, 42.1% from 3-point range and 83.8% from the free throw line – full control of the game at every turn.

This is evident from research by Justin Kubatko of Stattitudes, Jokić is only the 11th player to win multiple regular season MVPs And Final MVP Awards. The other 10? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Moses Malone and the last two Finals MVPs, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry. Pretty good company. (For the record, the NBA didn’t start awarding Finals MVP until 1969, which is the only reason you don’t see the late legend Bill Russell’s name on this list – although you Doing see it on the award itself.)

The Finals MVP trophy is a fitting capper for what will go down as one of the greatest individual postseason runs in NBA history. As familiar as we’ve become by now with Jokić’s outsized stats, it’s worth taking a step back and contextualizing just how remarkable his playoff performance has been.

Heading into Game 5, 27 players in Stathead’s database had averaged 30 points per game in a postseason run that lasted at least 10 games. Forty-seven averaged at least 13 rebounds per game. Twenty-four had averaged nine assists. Fourteen had posted true shooting percentage north of .600 while using at least 30% of their teams offensive possessions.

How many have done all of that in one postseason? Yes: you guessed it.

“He’s unique in the myriad ways he can influence the game and winning,” said Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra ahead of the series.

Jokić is the seventh player in NBA history to score more than 500 points, grab more than 200 rebounds and provide more than 100 assists in a single postseason. Boost those numbers to 550-250-150 – all of which Jokić easily cleared – and we’re in one-on-one territory once again.

Heading into Game 5, Jokić had a total of 4.8 win shares in the 2023 playoffs – only Duncan, James, Dirk Nowitzki and Kawhi Leonard have ever produced more in a single postseason. Only Duncan, James, Bird, Jordan and Leonard have ever had a higher value than a substitute player in a single playoff run. Only Le
Bron, Kareem, MJ and Kawhi have posted a higher player efficiency score.

That is extremely thin air that Jokić is in, and his overwhelming individual impact led to overwhelming collective results. With Jokić and Jamal Murray at the wheel, the Nuggets achieved the highest offensive rating of any champion since the 1987 Lakers, per Kubatko—a point-producing juggernaut who beat every opponent he faced, every plan against him, every adjustment that formed midway through. , dismantled. series in hopes of slowing it down.

Karl-Anthony Towns with Rudy Gobert lurking for the ball, Gobert and Deandre Ayton one-on-one, Rui Hachimura with Anthony Davis behind him, Bam Adebayo in front with help behind, all sorts of stunts and digs, the vaunted Miami zone – all trampled under a two-man game forged in the fire of nearly a decade of iterations, complemented perfectly by shooters, cutters and ball-movers capable of finding every crevice and crevice in the cover.

“I think it’s just fluid, beautiful basketball,” said Murray, who averaged 21.4 points and 10 assists per game during his own brilliant Finals run after Denver won Game 1. …just read on the basketball court. I think that’s the beauty of what this team is, we have so many different weapons and so many different looks [that] you have to guard everyone.

Time and again during this Finals, the Nuggets showed the depth and variety of those weapons: Murray’s stellar scoring output in Games 1 and 3, rookie Christian Braun kicking 15 off the bench in Game 3, Aaron Gordon’s monster Game 4, Bruce Brown scoring 11 of his 21 in the fourth quarter to seal a 3-1 lead. Those individuals deserve the credit of stepping to the front of the stage and shining brightly under the klieg lights of the Finale. They were largely free to do so because Miami was terrified of the havoc Jokić could wreak, and because of the way Jokić weaponizes that fear by applying to the court the kind of altruism that makes him so allergic. to talk about himself at press conferences.

“It’s really rare – it’s a blessing,” said Gordon after Game 4. “It’s great to play with these guys. These guys are so selfless. They’re so passionate about basketball and they understand that putting your energy into the ball must keep, and if you play the right way, everything will work as it should. We can win. Everyone gets love when you win.”

That, more than anything, is the core of what the Nuggets built in the Rockies while the eyes of the NBA-watching world looked elsewhere: the feeling that by sharing the burden and the ball, by focusing on how We score instead of how i scoring, and by trusting the pass and each other, you win much more than you lose. And that, to hear head coach Michael Malone say, all stems from Jokić.

“Culture is not something you achieve and you cross it off your list,” Malone said during Nuggets practice Sunday, ahead of Game 5. “Culture is something you have to work on every day, or if not, that culture goes disappear. Coincidentally, the two-time MVP and a great player in Nikola embodies everything. If you have a man who has had the success that Nikola has had, is your hardest worker and is as selfless as he is and has as much faith as he is, well, that allows everyone to get in line.

And if everyone is in step, in the same direction, with the same motivation, you can go a long way.

“I think [with] Nikola, it’s never about looking back,” Malone said for this series. “It’s always about looking ahead and challenging himself to become the best player he can be.”

The player he became in this series, according to the trained eye of the person who has worked with him more closely and more often than anyone else over the past six years, is the best version there has ever been.

“He won his first MVP. And his numbers were better the second MVP [season]. And his grades are better now,” Murray said. “I think there will actually be more to come from Jok. I don’t think we’ve seen a side of Jok that we’re going to see where he can just be pure dominance – the whole game, even more than he’s been.

Then the journey may just be starting. Jokić probably won’t be that interested in talking about it. The rest of us though? We’re gonna talk about him for a long time, and what he just did, long time.

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