This particular inquiry into Nikola Jokić, following his Nuggets’ sweep of the Lakers, pointed to a specific play yet was also ontological in nature. The tone of the question conveyed the sentiments he regularly leaves viewers digesting. What the!? Maaan, how? What are you???
Monday’s micro moment by this macro fella was a 3-pointer with just under three minutes left in Game 4. Denver was ahead by three and the possession was dwindling away when Jokić did one of those things he does. One of those plays that makes you wonder if he’s proof “Men In Black” was based on a true story. While being smothered by Anthony Davis, Jokić pulled out a stepback, fall-away, one-footed 3-pointer. It scraped the roof of Crypto.com Arena and landed to a symphony of sounds: the horn of the shot clock, the ripping of the nets, the gasp of the crowd.
“You know what?” Jokić said after a couple of seconds of pondering the question. He initially looked ready to spew a monotonous answer but seemed to remember he even impressed himself. “I’m gonna say that’s my signature shot.”
It’s a crazy thought, a stepback 3 as his signature shot — considering Jokić is 6-foot-11 and 285 pounds of Serbian flesh who has feasted in the paint for the better part of eight seasons and two MVPs. But for what he represents, for the uniqueness in his dominance, it actually makes sense this shot, this moment, in the biggest game of his NBA life, would be his autograph. For this shot adequately conveyed the ridiculousness of Jokić.
Most of Game 4 was the LeBron James Show. The 38-year-old looked and felt like he’d predetermined the Lakers would win. He dug up some of the peak 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 just as intense and meaningful as the previous three despite the inevitability of the Lakers’ demise.
James was playing so well, it was even fathomable, though fantastical, he could author the first-ever comeback from a 3-0 series deficit, another featured gem in a storied career, beginning with this vintage LeBron performance.
The Nuggets were up 107-102 when the NBA’s all-time leading scorer put his head down, sped off a Davis screen and blew past Jokić for a layup. It gave him 40 for the night, to go with his nine assists and eight rebounds at the time. The Lakers needed a stop and were close to getting one as Jokić didn’t get the ball until about five seconds left on the shot clock. A defensive stand here, and the vibe dictated LeBron would go right back the other way for another driving layup. Probably with a foul for a three-point play to tie the game. He was having that kind of night.
But Jokić reminded his team, the Lakers, the 18,997 fans in the arena, the millions more viewing, that this night would not end without a word from him. The answer for LeBron’s motivated push was Jokić’s inexplicable greatness. The Lakers, or any foe, might figure out star guard Jamal Murray, could slow the Nuggets’ quality role players and may even outmaneuver Nuggets coach Michael Malone. But they still have to deal with the ridiculousness of Jokić.
He’s a riddle. A fluid, shifting, evolving, intelligent and massive conundrum who can morph into what he needs to be. He is something out of a video game, a created player by a conflicted soul. He’s the Nuggets’ inside presence and floor general. A traditional center and a stretch big. He reads the game like a savant, sees all the angles like an elite point guard. Still, he gets buckets and inhales rebounds like a traditional dominant center. He’s huge, plodding and physical, while simultaneously dexterous. He’s got the everyman physique that seems perennially on the verge of exhaustion, yet his competitive fervor seems unextinguishable.
He is, in a word, ridiculous.
“If you’re watching the game, he’s doing some incredible stuff,” Murray said. “And he’s been doing it all playoffs. Just staying consistent no matter what they throw at him: double-teams, single coverage, help from the baseline, from the top, traps. He’s been figuring out it all and just being that consistent motor for us.”
Jokić has been the subject of much debate over the last couple of years. His back-to-back MVPs, and being in the mix for a third straight, led to questions about the measuring of his greatness.
This postseason, especially these last two series as he took down modern giants, has been a resounding rebuttal. In these playoffs, he’s beating all allegations against him. But like all legends in the making, Jokić needed to be vetted for special status. Not in statistics but on stage.
One of the difficulties of assessing Jokić, besides being in a small market, is how his game so defies basketball logic. That’s part of his profundity. The statistics and analytics only tell part of his story. They don’t totally encapsulate him, how unique a figure he is in the history of the game, the persistent novelty in his play. The rarified air he’s been ascending toward is so much bigger than data. It’s one thing to understand greatness. It’s another to behold it.
In these Western Conference finals, against the Lakers, against LeBron, Jokić passed the math test and the eye test. The nation was able to put a moment with the minutia, a feeling to the figure. His game can be so ludicrous as to feel gimmicky, but he’s proven without a doubt there is nothing fluky about him.
The spectrum of the 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, downloads a move for the situation, all with a defensive wizard mouth breathing all over him. What percentage of the 450 NBA players panic a little in that scenario, get off-kilter and hurried? Ninety?
His nimbleness. He starts on the right side of the lane, above the elbow of the paint. He spins back towards the middle, crosses over his dribble from right to left, jabs toward the basket and steps back for a 26-footer. It’d be one thing if this was Murray or even Michael Porter Jr. This was the center. But this is what Jokić does. The move even has a name — “The Sombor Shuffle” — popularized by DNVR Sports’ Adam Mares. Jokić created it in 2017 after a left ankle injury, allowing him to get off his shot while putting all the pressure on his right. Now he can Sombor Shuffle in either direction.
His sheer size. The nimbleness is so jarring because he’s a mountain. How massiveness shines on this play. Davis, who’s been accused of throttling down, was locked in for the end of this possession. He was all over Jokić and read the move perfectly. He didn’t bite on the jab step, anticipating the stepback. And Davis is listed as an inch shorter than Jokić, but if you add his vertical leap and 7-foot-6 wingspan and his eliteness at swatting shots, you’d think his daddy was a tube man. Shooting over Davis is serious geometry. But Jokić cocked the ball behind his head, hiding it on the other side of the mountain’s peak as he faded away. He then launched it with his trademark catapult form. Drifting backward on the X-axis, Jokić released it from a height and hoisted it up the Y-axis so even Davis couldn’t get to it.
“I’m off balance my whole life,” Jokić said. “So that’s kind of normal for me.”
His incomparable touch. The bruising Jokić, with gashes and scars and red blotches from all the collisions he endures, somehow has a shot softer than your next-door neighbor. Though his release point is already elevated, he still uses so much arc. Whether on his gentle flips in the lane or his gradual 3-pointers, he gets plenty air beneath he shots. This one, with the shot clock about to expire, was high enough to lower your tray tables and get out your electronics. It was up there forever too, hovering above the tensity in Crypto.com.
When he hit that shot, putting the Nuggets up six, it was clear the Lakers wouldn’t solve him. They’d tie the game, still in position to win in the final seconds. But no matter how close they got, how confident they felt, Jokić and his assault on basketball convention would inevitably create another way to win.
“When you have a guy like Jokić,” James said, “who’s as big as he is but also as cerebral as he is, you can’t really make many mistakes versus a guy like that. And even when you guard him for one of the best possessions that you think you can guard him, he puts the ball behind his head Larry Bird style and shoots it 50 feet in the air and it goes in.”
“Like, he did four or five times this series. So you do like this to him.”
Then James literally took off his hat in homage to Jokić. One mind-blowing generational talent to another. All he could do was smile and tip his cap. Because there is no other response to the ridiculousness of Jokić.
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(Photo of Nikola Jokić taking a shot: Allen Berezovsky / Getty Images)