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The Legend of Nikola Jokic Is Growing

The Nuggets big man beat every scheme, won every matchup, and sank seemingly every improbable moonball in a series sweep of the Lakers

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Nikola Jokic—as an idea—has never made much sense. No player who is 7 feet tall should be able to sling passes the way Jokic does, or shoot at the clip he does, or control the game from as many different areas of the floor as he does. And if one could, they surely wouldn’t have been selected in the second round of the draft, with a pick so seemingly inconsequential it was announced during a commercial cutaway for something called a Quesarito. The odds are against any second-round pick even getting a real shot in the league—especially one like Jokic, whose body type was understood to be incompatible with NBA basketball. Even if he did get a chance to prove himself, it was highly unlikely that a player with his profile would ever manage to stick around, let alone go on to dominate—to win MVPs, shatter records left and right, and deliver a franchise to the NBA Finals.

But if all of that did happen—against all logic and probability and human understanding—it would make its own baffling sort of sense that the aforementioned trip to the Finals, the first in Nuggets history, would be clinched by a shot like this one:

“I’m gonna say that’s my signature shot,” Jokic said with a smirk after the Denver Nuggets topped the Los Angeles Lakers, 113-111, to close out a remarkable Western Conference finals sweep. He was kidding, of course, but there’s a grain of truth in every joke; while it’s ridiculous to think that a player could make a signature move out of such an improbable heave, it’s a little less so when you consider that it wasn’t even the first time in this series that Jokic hit a stepback 3 against the clock over the outstretched arm of Anthony Davis.

“You tip your hat to him when he makes those shots,” Davis said after the game. LeBron James, in his own, uhh, eventful press conference, literally did—tipping his white cap by its black brim to an undeniable opponent. “Even when you guard him for one of the best possessions you think you’ve guarded him,” James said, “he puts the ball behind his head, Larry Bird style, and shoots it 50 feet in the air and it goes in. I think he did it like four or five times this series.”

None of those hurried and heavily contested shots were exactly replicable, which is why they so perfectly capture the extraordinary center who converted them. What could be a better signature for Jokic than a shot that no one can fully explain? One that leaves arguably the best defensive player in the sport shaking his head in disbelief? That instantly iconic moment seemed to hit the Arena crowd in waves: first in an eruption of anguish, then in muttering incredulity, and finally—having seen so much of this from Jokic already—a kind of acceptance. “At that moment,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said, “I felt like we was gonna win the game.” There was so much more to the Nuggets’ closeout, come-from-behind effort than that one shot, but it captured a quintessential part of the Jokic experience: the way his incredible skill level allows him to be infinitely resourceful.

“Being off-balance? I’m off-balance my whole life,” Jokic said. “So that’s kinda normal for me.”

It’s clear at this point that what seems normal for Jokic is anything but. Through three rounds of the playoffs, the 28-year-old center is averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 10.3 assists—breathtaking numbers unmatched in postseason history. Jokic could go down as the first player to ever average a triple-double all the way to a championship. As it stands, Jokic surpassed Wilt Chamberlain on Monday for the most triple-double performances (eight) in a single postseason run.

“I always think about this and laugh because that first summer league in Vegas, [he was] 300 pounds, out of shape,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Eh, he’s a nice player. No one—and if anyone tells you different, they’re full of shit—no one ever could have seen that he’d be a two-time MVP passing Wilt Chamberlain it seems like every other night.”

On Monday, that two-time MVP was also unanimously voted as the MVP of the Western Conference finals—much to the delight of his teammates, who mobbed Jokic after the announcement, affectionately rubbing his head. Before the trophy ceremony began, Jokic managed to steal a moment away with his family, tucking his NBA FINALS hat with the Nuggets logo—a little piece of franchise history—on his daughter’s head. In some ways, the close of this series felt like the first real exhale for the Nuggets in weeks. Some players were reflective, others exuberant. Regardless of their disposition, every player, coach, and staff member was greeted with bear hugs from Jokic’s brothers, Strahinja and Nemanja, as they left the floor.

Every member of the playing rotation had their moment in the spotlight in this series. But the man of the hour was the unlikely superstar who came to the Nuggets on a second-round moonshot and made it all possible, changing the franchise forever. Whatever Denver needs, Jokic provides. Monday’s game was defined by a Herculean effort from LeBron—including the highest-scoring first half of his decorated playoff career—until Jokic decided it wasn’t. To finish off the Lakers, he brought the Nuggets back from a double-digit deficit, pushing the pace at every opportunity while playing virtually the entire game, and creating most of Denver’s offense down the stretch.

“Forty-five minutes while in foul trouble—30, 14, and 13,” Jamal Murray said, summing up his teammate’s box score contributions. “That’s decent. In a closeout game. 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 or from the top, traps.” No opponent yet has come anywhere close to solving the problems that Jokic creates, which is why Denver has lost just three total games through three playoff rounds.

The legend of Jokic is growing, in part because of how uncompromising he’s been in postseason play. Leave him to his own devices in single coverage and he’ll drop 50. Send the double-team at the perfect time and he’ll beat it; send it late and you might as well go home. It’s exhausting, physically, to contend with a player of Jokic’s size on the block and on the glass. The real toll, however, is in the exacting standard he places on an opposing defense by turning every Nugget into a live threat. There’s nowhere for a poor defender to hide, but worse than that: there’s not even room for a good defender to get tired, misread a play, or react a fraction of a second too late.

“When you have a guy like Joker—who [is] as big as he is but also as cerebral as he is—you can’t really make many mistakes versus a guy like that,” James said. The Lakers didn’t even play a poor series. They just couldn’t find an edge against an opponent who can adapt to meet any moment.

If you miss a shot at the rim, Jokic will pull down the board and launch the Nuggets out on the break himself. If you take even a step in his direction when he starts going to work in the post, he will victimize your best intentions by throwing a perfect pass over the top. “He makes it really simple,” Aaron Gordon said. “He sees you all over the floor. He ushers you to make the right play, just by a nod of the head or a look of the eyes. He’s a maestro with the basketball. He’s a savant.”

Maybe that’s the only explanation necessary for how the least traditionally athletic player on the court manages to run it, to the point of a clean sweep against one of the greatest players of all time and one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. Jokic didn’t just outplay James or Davis. He outplayed everyone. He beat every scheme. He beat every matchup. And as the shot clock ticked away, he took a long step behind the arc, rocked back onto one foot, and beat every reasonable doubt, too.