Nuggets vs. Heat: Nikola Jokic makes NBA Finals history, continues to rewrite definition of bucket
With nine minutes to play in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat, who have been playing catchup since the start and trailed by 21 points at the start of the fourth, had cut Denver’s lead to 10 by 11. -0 runs over a three minute quick burst.
It was the first time in the second half that Miami felt that way could to be able to fight her way back. Another stop and bucket to cut the lead to single digits would have been honest cause for Denver’s concerns. It was not, however, going to take that long.
See, the Nuggets have this guy named Nikola Jokic. You may have heard of him. Michael Malone doesn’t believe enough people talk enough about the two-time MVP, and he might be right. So for the few of you out there who still aren’t completely hooked on Jokic’s unique brand of leadership, understand that he, much like a typical superstar, is a proven bucket getter. The difference is, he’s often not the real one getting the bucket.
With Miami running and Jokic charged with finishing, Jamal Murray is running a pick and roll with Jokic. Miami jumps out at Murray, who demanded such attention with a 26-point night, leaving Jokic free on the short roll, where he caught the pass, that he faced on the basket calmly, and found Jeff Green’s cut for an uncontested layup.
Later in the fourth, with just over two minutes to play, Miami had now cut the lead to nine with one last-ditch charge. Again, Denver needed a bucket. They go to Jokic in the soft spot of Miami’s zone. He jumps hard downhill, forcing two Miami defenders to cover Aaron Gordon’s cut on the baseline as his weight simultaneously pulls Gabe Vincent down from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
In one small step, Jokic wastes the attention of three Heat bodies, so when he casually passes it back to KCP, Vincent now has to go back to close out, leaving him prey easy for KCP to drive straight past for a double. pull up dribble. Bucket.
This is such a fresh take on the classic superstar hunt for the dagger. Jokic hunts dagger dimes. He realizes the same thing every superstar does, that his team needs a bucket, and that his entire organization is depending on him to make sure they get the bucket. He just looks at the situation, and the court, with an unsullied eye. His vision is clear, both literally and figuratively. Nothing is predetermined. No agenda or ego clouds his judgment. He waits for you to show your hand, then decides when and where to put the pocket aces he’s been holding all along.
After setting up KCP, Jokic, in the ensuing possession, spotted Aaron Gordon behind the Miami defense and, for the final nail in the coffin, drained a 30-foot dime for another layup.
That would have been Jokic’s 15th assist of the night if Gordon hadn’t been hacked before he could turn. What a shame. Jokic had to settle for 14 assists, a Finals record for a center as Denver rolled to a 104-93 victory and a 1-0 series lead.
Throw in 27 points and 10 rebounds, and Jokic joins Jason Kidd as one of two players in history to record a triple-double in his first Finals game. For those not counting at home, Jokic now has nine triple doubles this postseason. Every other player in the playoffs has combined for three.
“I don’t need to shoot,” Jokic said afterward. “I know I don’t need to score to affect the game, and I think I did a good job today.”
You think? The man scored 27 points while taking only 12 shots. Seven of those came in the fourth quarter, meaning he only took five shots in the first three quarters. For some superstitions, you might say that is passive. Not Jokic. He is aggressive to score, he just doesn’t care if he is the one scoring.
Six of his assists came in the first quarter. He set the tone early on that he was going to pick Miami apart. He just recognizes the right play – sometimes flashy, sometimes not – and then he makes that play. Gordon had a size imbalance. Jokic found it early. Feed him every now and then. Here with the top-bottom seal:
Then here it is again with another Gordon seal:
“One thing about Nikola is that he takes great joy in making plays for other people. He really does. I think he takes more joy in that ,” Malone told reporters. “I don’t think he cares if he scored 27 points or not. He’s worried we’re up 1-0 [in the series].”
It’s true. Jokic doesn’t care that he had 27 points on Thursday. But I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s worried he had 14 assists either. He’s a passer at heart, but his most important principle is making the right play. When he needs to score, he scores. He averaged 34 points against the Suns. Had 53 in Game 4. He’s at over 27 per game for the playoffs with an absolutely obscene 70% shooting.
It’s very simple with Jokic: You either cover him and he destroys you in the post, or with his feather paint shots, or by shooting damn near 50 percent from 3 during those playoffs. Or you duplicate it, and if it does this:
Playoff basketball is all about quality shots. Whichever team gets more of them usually wins. Jokic is a cheat code for great shots. He all but commits one, either to himself or to a teammate, every time down the floor. It is a prime example of a pick your poison dilemma. Passer. Scorer. Doesn’t matter. You are dead on the road.
For three years Jokic has been an unsolvable puzzle, and the Heat offered no evidence Thursday that they have some sort of secret antidote buried up their sleeve. Jokic is just too good right now. And by extension, so are the Nuggets.