Moore: Nikola Jokic Teaches a Lesson in Greatness as Nuggets Win Game 5

Moore: Nikola Jokic Teaches a Lesson in Greatness as Nuggets Win Game 5 article feature image

Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)

DENVER — Being great isn't just about dominating when it's easy. It's not about sweeping teams or proving your superiority. It's about how you respond when adversity hits, when everything goes wrong.

In Game 2 vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves, Nikola Jokic disappeared. In Games 3, 4 and 5, Jokic reminded everyone of an inescapable fact: He's an all-time great.

Jokic was passive and disinterested in Game 2. And in Game 5, he was a man on fire. Jokic scored 16 points with four assists in the third quarter alone, and most of his buckets came right on the dome or in the eye of the reigning and four-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

Jokic finished with 40 points and 13 assists on 15-of-22 shooting. He also had no turnovers.

Jokic became the third player to score 40 points in a playoff game with 13 assists while shooting 68% or better from the field.

As always, though, the numbers don't really reveal how good of a game Jokic had. He controlled the game from tip-off to finish, dictated the terms of engagement and dominated.

All of this after it looked like Jokic would be swept after receiving his third MVP.

In the first two games of this series, Jokic fell. In the last three games, he rose back to his special level of greatness.

"Every great player has gone through those trials and tribulations. Every one of them," Michael Malone said after the game about his challenge to his players after falling down 0-2 at home.

It wasn't easy for Jokic; he just made it look that way. Gobert battled and challenged him, but Jokic simply scored anyway.

After the game, Jokic simply said "I had a good night."

Denver responded to an 0-2 deficit, not with one championship trait, but all of them. The Nuggets played with poise, control, precision, energy and physicality. Aaron Gordon dunked constantly despite Chris Finch saying after Game 4 they might have to pay more attention to him defensively.

Jokic had multiple dunks, too. The Nuggets had 62 points in the paint on the No. 1 defense, 14 more than Minnesota.

The Nuggets' defense flummoxed and paralyzed Anthony Edwards with double teams. Jokic was active on switches against Edwards and contained him with active defense in pick-and-rolls.

But ultimately, the story of the night was that the Wolves hung in a game in which they were missing their starting point guard Mike Conley and both Naz Reid and Karl-Anthony Towns faced foul trouble. However, they couldn't hang when Jokic engaged his full potential.

Gordon ran out of superlatives describing Jokic's game: amazing, astounding, incredible. He noted there are times when the Nuggets need him to not be passive and it was great to see Jokic attack.

He attacked like a bengal tiger. Or a dragon. Something mythical.

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It's hard in these moments to understand that you're witnessing history. In 10 years when Jokic is done playing and his jersey goes up in the rafters, they'll play highlights and old heads will talk of this game when Jokic dropped 40 on 25 shots against one of the best defensive players in NBA history.

What might get lost is how easy it would've been for the Nuggets and Jokic to give in down 0-2. It's hard to repeat. It's hard to beat the No. 1 defense. It's hard to come back from down 0-2 after losing two at home. The Wolves hadn't lost three games in a row all season.

But that's when greatness does its thing.

Even in the third quarter, the Wolves came out and scored seven unanswered to take the lead. Malone called a timeout to once again recenter his players, as he's had to multiple times in the playoffs in the third. The Wolves are the best third quarter team in the league this season.

Jokic scored the next seven points for Denver, though.

The Wolves are a great team. Edwards has played great in these playoffs and he's — at times — touched greatness.

But Jokic embodies greatness.

Now the Nuggets have the Wolves on the ropes and an untested team faces a must-win situation against an opponent they haven't been able to even budge over the past three games.

Among the most dangerous things about Jokic is that he learns from every encounter, adapting and improving. He also smells blood when an opponent is off its axis.

The Wolves didn't lose Game 4 because of inexperience, their mentality, their shooting or even their star player's struggles or their point guard's injury, though those contributed to the tableau of disappointment.

They lost because for two games, they dug a deep hole for a great player to climb out of.

And now they've seen how greatness rises above it all.

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Nick Sterling
May 29, 2024 UTC