MIAMI – Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid repeatedly lobbied for his first MVP award and there appeared to be voter fatigue and an understandable hesitation to make Nikola Jokic the first three-time consecutive MVP winner since Larry Bird.
Jokic said nothing. He made it clear that individual awards were not a concern. But on the league’s biggest stage, where casual NBA fans who haven’t watched the Denver Nuggets are now getting a full helping of Jokic’s skill set, he is responding with greatness.
Is the best player in the world an awkward-looking, methodical 7-footer with no muscular definition? The answer right now is yes. Jokic, a former second-round pick who has humbly created a path to the Hall of Fame, cemented his status as the best in the world with a once-in-a-lifetime performance in Game 3 of the NBA Finals at Kaseya Center.
With the Nuggets reeling after melting down in the fourth quarter of Game 2, Jokic responded by becoming the first player in league history to record a 30-point triple double in a Finals series. His 32 points, 21 rebounds, and 10 assists capped off a masterpiece performance with Magic Johnson, who put up 42-15-7 as a 20-year-old in the 1980 Finals, sitting courtside.
The Nuggets recaptured home-court advantage with a 109-94 win over the Miami Heat and again the storyline shifted to quiet, unassuming big man from Serbia with the wry sense of humor and no interest in NBA’s self-promotion culture.
While many NBA players dress for the Miami atmosphere with their snazziest gear, Jokic walked to the postgame podium sporting a short-sleeved polo shirt and khakis, looking more like the cable guy than an NBA megastar.
And he began the session with a sincere and monotone, “hello everybody.”
Any questions about his personal accomplishments will be swatted away like a floater in the paint. Jokic would rather discuss anything besides his individual numbers or the debate about whether he has surpassed Giannis Antetokounmpo or Embiid as the league’s best player.
“To be honest, I just think it’s a win because if you lose, nobody is going to even mention — even to be honest, I don’t care,” he said of the triple-double. “It’s just a stat.”
Meanwhile, Jokic’s teammate Jamal Murray added 34 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, and they became the first duo to collect 30-point triple doubles in the same game in the NBA’s 76-year history. It was a pair of masterpiece performances with the Nuggets requiring a stern comeback after getting pushed around and stymied in Game 2.
Jokic scored 41 points in that loss, but his teammates helped little. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra tersely dismissed the theory that the Heat wanted to turn Jokic into a scorer instead of distributor. He’s so proficient at getting others involved with his stellar feel for the game and basketball I.Q.
“I think it speaks for itself. It speaks for itself, bro,” Murray said of Jokic’s performance. “Like I said, how many times does he have to do that for you guys to believe in his game or our game or whatever? Like he’s doing it, making it look so easy, good shooting, low turnovers, two blocked shots, got great hands, great communication in the pick-and-rolls, and IQ and all that.
Like I say, we’re running out of things to say. He makes the game look easy, and like I said, the consistency that he’s doing that with, not just the first time in the Finals, he’s done that before.”
On Wednesday, Jokic scored at the rim, found teammates on cuts, and dominated the boards. He has such a soft touch around the basket and also the ability to pass out of double teams that he’s nearly impossible to defend.
Murray, who blamed himself for his quiet Game 2 (10 points in the first 42 minutes), came back with clutch jumper after jumper as the Nuggets took the lead for good with three minutes left in the first half and then extended the lead to double digits in the third quarter.
And this time, Jokic, Murray, and with a spark from rookie Christian Braun, the Nuggets staved off that customary Miami fourth-quarter rally. The Heat played one of their worst games of the playoffs, and the Nuggets countered with their best.
“I mean, this is the right time if you’re going to play your best basketball, I think this is the right time to play your best basketball,” Jokic said. “But I think, like you said, the team is really important, yes. A couple guys maybe didn’t make shots or they didn’t play well, but there is other guys who can step up and fill that position and be even better. Is this the best basketball that we’ve played? I don’t know. As long as we’re winning games.”
Jokic is using these Finals to eliminate any debates as to whether he deserved his previous two MVPs or whether he should have received more votes for a third. Maybe it was a late regular-season Nuggets swoon or Jokic sitting out five of the final seven games that cost him critical support as Embiid closed out the season strong. But he’s making the case for himself as one of the more unique and unlikely superstars in league history. And the world is finally getting the pleasure of watching him masterfully dominate at the highest level without a hint of a chest pound, trash talk, or even a smile.
Just on to the next game.
“Regarding Nikola, nothing he does surprises me ever,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “This guy has shown time and time again that he’s built for these moments. He thrives in these moments, the biggest stage. He did that once again tonight. I’ve always felt that Nikola and Jamal Murray are one of the most elite and lethal two-man game combos in the NBA, and we’ve seen that growing for seven years now and I think it was on full display once again.”