From a skeptic’s perch, Nikola Jokic was a prime candidate for fraudulence come springtime. His youth, his floamy physique, the unprecedented weirdness of his game, his occasional habit of going passive when he should’ve gotten more shots up, his leadership of a No. 2 seeded Nuggets squad that never quite felt like the second-best team in the West—these were all reasons for suspicion among believers and nonbelievers alike. Was any of this really real? Sometimes even Jokic’s fellow players seemed to detect a whiff of gimmickry and come at him with special fervor.
Here’s how that gimmick has shaken out through the first eight games of Jokic’s postseason career: 24.9 points, 11.8 rebounds, 8.8 assists, and 1.5 steals a night. That’s better than his regular season averages on every count. As for the shooting, he’s gone 50 percent from the floor, 37 percent from three, and 91 percent from the line, with 60 percent true shooting overall, unimpeachable across the board. And Denver’s doughy hero has maintained a 6.3 net rating even after that tight seven-game first-round series.
Surveying his last three box scores is something of a trip: 43 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists in Game 6 as San Antonio shot the lights out; 21-15-10 in Game 7 to finally bury them; 37-9-6 in Game 1 versus Portland on Monday night. The games took on higher stakes, and the big brioche didn’t collapse; he grew even stronger. To make matters as clear as possible: On a night that featured a highly efficient 39-point Dame Lillard eruption, Nikola Jokic still remained the best player on the floor.
Granted, when questions are asked about Jokic’s postseason viability, these aren’t quite the tests that critics had in mind. San Antonio was not a good defense, and it still took Denver perilously long to get their offensive flow going; perhaps only one quarter of unconscious Jamal Murray separated them from an untimely exit. Portland is not a good defense either, certainly not with Jusuf Nurkic on crutches and Enes Kanter filling the void. Jokic was going to pivot and duck and dime his way past Kanter anyway; there’s perhaps no big in the league less equipped to contain the Jokic-Murray two-man game out in space. Now that Kanter is wincing through his minutes with a separated shoulder, the Blazers seem to be thinning out at the very position where Denver is most capable of exploiting them. There’s an unsettling amount of Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins on the monitors. In fact, this depleted roster might be instilling a little too much self-confidence in the soft god:
I jest. He’s going to continue to embarrass anyone Portland puts on the floor, and provide high entertainment as he does so. There are structural reasons to believe that centers can’t maintain quite the same postseason value as perimeter players who initiate the offense. But the league has never had a center quite like Nikola Jokic, in style and in approach: a one-stop shop for team offense, who can reliably create good shots for himself and everyone around him, versatile enough to adapt to new conditions each round. If he leads Denver past Portland and puts up a respectable fight in the West finals, the only Nikola Jokic question that should remain is where he belongs among the absolute best players in the NBA.