Nikola Jokic: Reluctant Superstar, MVP and – Finally – NBA Champion
C. Morgan Engel/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets are NBA champions at last.
But it sure wasn't easy.
The home Denver crowd was raucous and ready to celebrate at Ball Arena, but this was anything but a coronation, and the Heat were not ready to go quietly. This was the Game 7-iest Game 5 that ever was.
Every basket was a chore. Both teams went long stretches without scoring. They combined to miss 121 shots while shooting under 38% from the field and a close-your-eyes awful 14-of-63 on 3s (22%).
No one on either team was scoring efficiently or easily. Well, almost no one.
I guess you can call Nikola Jokic an outlier.
Jokic quietly went about his business as usual, racking up 28 points to lead all scorers on an uber-efficient 12-of-16 from the field. Ho hum. He made 11 of his 13 2s and finished at 77% True Shooting, adding 16 rebounds to boot.
Denver's usually efficient offense struggled to find a rhythm all night.
Jamal Murray scored only 14 and couldn't get it going a second straight game. Aaron Gordon had only four points after his Game 4 explosion. Michael Porter Jr.'s shooting woes continued.
Denver uncharacteristically shot just 13-of-23 from the line. The Nuggets finished 5-of-28 on 3s, a ghastly 17.9% that ranks worst in history for a winning team in the Finals (minimum 25 attempts).
Denver was 1-of-15 from deep at halftime. You'll never guess who had the one.
Call Nikola Jokic a sharpshooter.
That make helped Jokic finish the postseason 35-of-76 from behind the arc, his deadly 46% top 15 all-time for a player with that many attempts in a single postseason.
Denver looked shaky early, even overwhelmed by the moment, and the Nuggets got into quick foul trouble with Jokic, Murray and Gordon each picking up two first-quarter fouls.
Jokic's second came with 2:51 left in the quarter and Denver up two. By the time he checked back in at 9:09 in the second stanza, the Nuggets trailed by five.
He never left the game again.
Didn't even pick up another foul until the final two minutes.
Call Jokic Mr. Reliable.
Whatever his team needed, Jokic provided it.
In Game 5, that meant protecting the paint. The Heat made just 24-of-61 2s, an ugly 39%. Jokic led a stingy defense that held Miami to 38 second-half points.
With the Nuggets offense struggling to find its way, Jokic turned himself into a scorer. He scored on the first Denver possession of the third quarter and then repeated the feat in the fourth.
That bucket put Denver back in the lead after trailing to start the quarter against the league's best closing team. He'd go on to score 10 points in the final period.
Every time the Heat made a push, you could almost see Jokic exhale exasperatedly, annoyed at having to play the starring role again, and then calmly sink yet another bucket to retake control.
Call Nikola Jokic a reluctant star.
Jokic scored again with 4:43 left to put Denver up seven as the crowd roared in anticipation. Miami hadn't scored in five minutes.
But Jimmy Butler wasn't done. He hit a 3, then another, then drew a questionable foul and sunk all three free throws. He scored again the next time down, and suddenly Miami led with under two and a half to go.
Did the Nuggets panic? Of course not. They just gave the ball to their MVP, and Jokic calmly scored another bucket, now 5-for-5 for the quarter as Denver retook the lead.
Miami scored only two more points, and that was that.
Jokic didn't hit the clinching free throws, and he didn't demand the ball to dribble the clock out and celebrate his crowning achievement.
When the clock struck 0:00, Jokic wasn't celebrating at all. He wasn't pounding his chest or jumping on the scorer's table. No, Jokic was already at the Miami bench shaking hands. He sought out every Heat player, one by one, making sure to pay his respect.
When interviewed a few minutes later, the first words out of Jokic's mouth were praise for a "great, great team" he had a lot of respect for. He credited his teammates and his coaching staff for their great closing defense, team-first, always.
Call Nikola Jokic humble.
In Denver's off week before the Finals, Jokic spent time with his family and horses in Serbia. When asked if he'd buy another horse if he won a title, he said yes – then smiled wryly and admitted he'd probably buy one if he lost, too.
But there was very little losing for Denver this postseason.
The Nuggets never trailed in a series at any point. They finished the postseason 16-4 with an Offensive Rating just short of the all-time regular-season record and a Net Rating north of +8, with few peers even among champions.
Jokic was at the heart of nearly everything good his team did, like always.
He finished the playoffs at 30.0 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 9.5 assists per game, the first player in league history to lead all three categories in a single postseason.
Jokic did fall a few assists short of becoming the first player ever to average a 30-point triple-double for the playoffs. Bet you can guess if he cared or even noticed.
He recorded 10 triple-doubles in 20 playoff games. Only four players in NBA history have more postseason triple-doubles in their entire careers than Jokic's 10 over the past two months.
Jokic's single-season Box Plus-Minus ranks top 10 among all playoff runs since 1974. His career playoff BPM now ranks second all-time, ahead of LeBron James, trailing only Michael Jordan.
These are the only peers left now for Nikola Jokic.
He is Finals MVP. He's Conference Finals MVP. He's two-time regular season MVP.
Call Nikola Jokic the Most Valuable Player on the planet.
Jokic has always made it clear it was never about the individual accolades. He just wanted to play ball with his teammates and win.
When he'd finally won the biggest game of his life, Jokic paid respect to a worthy opponent before finding his family and, finally, smiling. He celebrated with his wife, Natalija, and hugged older brothers Nemanja and Strahinja, all of whom he shared an apartment with before playing for Denver.
In his postgame interview, Jokic was asked how it feels to finally win an NBA title.
"It's good, it's good," he replied. "The job is done – we can go home now."
Not exactly "Anything is possible!!" but perfectly Jokic nonetheless. The man just wanted to win a basketball game so he could go home with his family and his horses.
A few minutes later, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver handed Jokic his Finals MVP as Jokic smiled sheepishly. He glanced briefly at the trophy before turning his gaze back upon his 20-month-old daughter, his face beaming with pride.
Who needs another trophy when you already have the best trophy in the world right there in your arms?
As the interview shifted to Murray, Jokic picked up his daughter and left the MVP trophy on the table behind him, quietly Sombor Shuffling back into obscurity, no doubt looking for his family.
The job is done now, Nikola. You can go home.