For all the sublime basketball abilities that Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic inarguably possesses, it’s still strangely hard to pin down a solid picture of him as a franchise-defining superstar. All those genius passes and flawlessly executed post moves combine with slogging floor-bound defense and stretches of passivity to muddy the picture. If you’ve seen him play once, you know that Nikola Jokic is often something like great. But even if you’ve seen him play a lot, it’s tough to know what the very best version of Nikola Jokic might actually look like.
During the final stretch of this season, which culminated in last night’s win-or-go-home game against the Timberwolves, Jokic’s star profile started to take shape. The Nuggets came into the game riding a six-game winning streak that kept their faint playoff hopes alive, and Jokic led that charge. Since the All-Star break he has averaged, 21 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists per game while shooting 52 percent from the field and 45 percent from three-point range. Over the final seven games of the season, he averaged 25-13-7 per game.
He spent most of last night’s must-win against the T-Wolves looking exactly like the kind of player who can put up those gaudy stats at will. Yes, he was as slow-footed and incapable of protecting the rim as ever, but he also went through large stretches of the game seemingly incapable of missing a shot. How does a team compete in big games when saddled with a big man who can’t really do anything on defense? By having one who can hit shots like this:
Jokic rubbing up against Karl-Anthony Towns like a flabby grizzly confronting a particularly girthy oak and then fading away like some sort of chunk-style supernatural entity is extremely fun to look at, but more practically it’s also unguardable. Jokic spent the first three quarters torturing Minnesota with shots like that, and was 12-of-17 from the field with 30 points headed into the final quarter. He was suddenly flexing Dirk-level shotmaking abilities, and for a little while there Nikola Jokic, Undeniable Superstar, was filling the screen. He was not only capable of running an offense from the high post, but of hitting shots whenever he wanted, from wherever he happened to be.
It didn’t last, of course. He’s not that player, yet, at least not in the fourth quarter of the final game of a long season. As the game wore on and Jokic’s body started to tire, he lost his shooting touch. He went 2-of-8 from the field in the fourth quarter and overtime, and was repeatedly overpowered by Taj Gibson. Gibson stripped the ball right out of his hands on what could have been the game-winning possession...
...and then did the same thing during a crucial overtime possession:
Jokic isn’t the first guy to get pushed around by Taj Gibson, and his poor finish to this game certainly doesn’t erase all the good he did leading up to it in both the first three quarters and the last few months. But the consequences that came with Jokic’s sudden shift from unstoppable genius to bullied klutz is a nice illustration of just how narrow his margin for error is. Jokic is never going to win the Nuggets an important game with a heroic block at the rim or by locking down a smaller player on the perimeter. If he is going to be the team’s lodestar, the guy on whom everyone can depend when the stakes are highest, he’s going to have to become the guy who simply doesn’t miss. It would be silly to rule out the possibility of that happening, but it’s also not any easier than it sounds.
For three quarters last night, Jokic was that guy. And then, with the ball in his hands and the game truly on the line, he wasn’t. The sharpness of his game dulled only slightly in those moments, but it was enough to send the Nuggets home with a second-straight late-season heartbreaker. He’ll try again next year to become whatever it is he might wind up being.