This particular investigation of Nikola Jokić, following his sweep of the Lakers by the Nuggets, pointed to a specific play but was also ontological in nature. The tone of the question conveyed the feelings that he regularly lets viewers digest. What is the!? Mom, how? What you are???
Monday’s micro moment by this macro guy was a 3-pointer with just under three minutes left in Game 4. Denver was up three and possession dwindled when Jokić did one of those things that he does. One of those pieces that makes you wonder if he’s proof that “Men In Black” was based on a true story. While being smothered by Anthony Davis, Jokić pulled out a step back, a 3-point miss on one foot. It scraped the roof of Crypto.com Arena and landed on a symphony of sounds: the horn of the stopwatch, the tearing of the nets, the gasp of the crowd.
“You know what?” Jokić said after a few seconds of thinking about the matter. He had at first seemed ready to spit out a monotonous response but seemed to remember that he had even impressed himself. “I’m going to say that’s my signature shot.”
It’s a crazy thought, step back 3 as his signature move – considering Jokić is 6ft 11in and 285lbs Serbian flesh who has feasted in the paint for the better part of eight seasons and two MVP. But for what he represents, for the uniqueness of his dominance, it actually makes sense that this shot, this moment, in the biggest game of his NBA life, is his autograph. For this shot adequately conveyed Jokić’s ridicule.
Most of Game 4 was the LeBron James Show. The 38-year-old looked like he predicted the Lakers would win. He dug up some of the top still left in his bones and put on a performance worthy of his status, all in the name of avoiding an embarrassing sweep. As a result, Monday’s game felt as intense and meaningful as the previous three despite the inevitability of the Lakers’ demise.
James was playing so well it was unfathomable even though fantastic he could have authored the first ever comeback from a series 3-0 deficit another star gem in a legendary career starting with this performance vintage LeBron.
The Nuggets led 107-102 when the NBA’s all-time leading scorer dropped his head, sped up a Davis screen and passed Jokić for a layup. That gave him 40 for the night, to go with his nine assists and eight rebounds at the time. The Lakers needed a stoppage and were close to getting one as Jokić didn’t get the ball back for about five seconds on the shot clock. A defensive position here, and the mood dictated that LeBron would come back the other way for another driving layup. Probably with a foul for a three-point play to tie the game. He spent this kind of night.
But Jokić reminded his team, the Lakers, the 18,997 fans in the arena, the millions of viewers, that this evening would not end without a word from him. The response to LeBron’s motivated push was Jokić’s inexplicable greatness. The Lakers, or any foe, could figure out star guard Jamal Murray, could slow the Nuggets’ quality role players and could even outsmart Nuggets coach Michael Malone. But they still have to deal with ridicule from Jokić.
It’s an enigma. A fluid, changing, evolving, intelligent and massive enigma that can transform into what it must be. He is something of a video game, a player created by a conflicted soul. He is the Nuggets’ interior presence and floor general. A traditional center and a great stretch. He reads the game like a scholar, sees all angles like an elite point guard. Still, he gets buckets and inhales rebounds like a traditional dominating center. He is enormous, laborious and physical, while being dexterous. He has everyone’s physique that seems perpetually on the brink of exhaustion, but his competitive fervor seems unquenchable.
It is, in a word, ridiculous.
“If you watch the game, he’s doing some amazing stuff,” Murray said. “And he made all the playoffs. Staying consistent no matter what they throw at him: double teams, single coverage, help from the baseline, from the top, traps. He has it all figured out and is just this constant driver for us.
Jokić has been the subject of much debate over the past two years. His back-to-back MVPs and being in the mix for a third straight has led to questions about the measure of his greatness.
This post-season, especially these last two series as he defeated the modern giants, has been a resounding rebuttal. In these playoffs, he beats all the allegations against him. But like all rising legends, Jokić needed to be vetted for special status. Not in statistics but on stage.
One of the difficulties of evaluating Jokić, besides being in a small market, is how his game defies the logic of basketball so much. This is part of its depth. Statistics and analysis tell only part of its story. They don’t quite sum it up, how unique he is in gaming history, the lingering novelty in his game. The rarefied air he ascended to is so much bigger than the data. It’s one thing to understand greatness. It’s another to see it.
In those Western Conference Finals, against the Lakers, against LeBron, Jokić passed the math test and the eyesight test. The nation knew how to put a moment with the meticulousness, a feeling in the face. His acting may be so ridiculous that it seems fancy, but he has proven beyond doubt that there is nothing weird about him.
The specter of Jokić’s brilliance was captured in this one shot.
His keen awareness. Notice how he checks the shot clock, measures time and space, and with his 5G broadband basketball IQ uploads a move for the situation, all with a defensive wizard mouth breathing all over him . What percentage of the NBA’s 450 players freak out a bit in this scenario, go haywire, and rush? Ninety?
His agility. It starts on the right side of the lane, above the paint bend. He spins back to the middle, crosses his dribble right to left, jabs to the basket and backs up for a 26-footer. It would be one thing if it was Murray or even Michael Porter Jr. He was the center. But that’s what Jokic does. The move even has a name – “The Sombor Shuffle” – popularized by Adam Mares of DNVR Sports. Jokić created it in 2017 after a left ankle injury, allowing him to take off his shot while putting all the pressure on his right. Now he can Sombor Shuffle back and forth.
Its sheer size. Agility is so jarring because it’s a mountain. How massiveness shines on this piece. Davis, who was charged with strangulation, was locked up for the end of that possession. He was all over Jokić and read the move perfectly. He didn’t bite on the step of the jab, anticipating the step back. And Davis is listed as an inch shorter than Jokić, but if you add his vertical leap and 7-foot-6 wingspan and his elite shot-smashing streak, you’d think his dad was a tube man. Shooting Davis is serious geometry. But Jokić cocked the ball behind his head, hiding it on the other side of the mountaintop as he disappeared. He then launched it with his trademark catapult form. Drifting backwards on the X axis, Jokić released it from a height and hoisted it onto the Y axis so that even Davis couldn’t get to it.
“I’ve been out of balance all my life,” Jokić said. “So it’s kind of normal for me.”
His incomparable touch. The bruised Jokić, with nicks, scars and red spots from all the collisions he endures, somehow has a softer hit than your next door neighbor. Although his release point is already high, he still uses so much bow. Whether it’s on his soft flips in the lane or his progressive 3-pointers, he gets plenty of air under his shots. This one, with the shot clock about to expire, was high enough to lower your trays and pull out your electronics. He was up there forever too, hovering above the tension in Crypto.com.
When he hit that shot, putting the Nuggets up six, it was clear the Lakers wouldn’t solve it. They would tie the game, still in a position to win in the dying seconds. But no matter how close they got, how confident they felt, Jokić and his assault on the basketball convention would inevitably create another way to win.
“When you have a guy like Jokić,” James said, “who’s as tall as he is but as cerebral as he is, you can’t really make a lot of mistakes against a guy like that. And even when you save it for one of the best possessions you think you can keep it, he puts the ball behind his head Larry Bird style and shoots it 50 feet in the air and he goes in.
“Like, he’s done this series four or five times. So you do him like this.
Then James literally took off his hat in tribute to Jokić. Stunning generational talent to the next. All he could do was smile and pull his cap off. Because there is no other answer to Jokić’s ridicule.
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(Photo by Nikola Jokić taking a photo: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)