Nikola Jokić’s first two MVP seasons were snapped short by title contenders with heavier artillery in the lineup. A year ago, Golden State broke their spirits by targeting Jokić defensively. In 2021, a shorthanded Denver Nuggets team got trounced in a four-game sweep by the Phoenix Suns.
Over the last 12 months, Jokić has lost an MVP race but risen to new heights in the postseason. He doubled his nightly assist total from the 2022 playoffs, and in Denver’s Game 3 loss, poured in a Wilt-like 50. For Game 5, Jokić put up a stat line right out of the Book of Chamberlain, with his 10th career triple-double, eclipsing Wilt for the most by a center in playoff history.
After scoring 53 and chipping in 11 assists in a Game 4 loss, Jokić’s omnipotent 31 points and 12 assists on Tuesday night fueled Denver’s Game 5 rout. Deandre Ayton is one of the few defenders with the strength to contend with Jokić in the post, so throughout this series, he’s gotten open by roaming the floor, diving into the paint, operating out of the high-post, and on more prototypical post-ups. All night, Jokić put the Phoenix defense in a blender from several different spots on the floor. More importantly, he’d got Jamal Murray as his partner in crime offensively.
This isn’t the Jokić who got his ass handed to him by the Lakers in the bubble, nor the one-man army who spent two postseasons waiting for Murray’s injured knee to heal. At 28, he’s tapped into a higher plane of playoff superstardom thanks in part to the Nuggets’ newfound two-man game. Murray put on a show in the bubble with his hot shooting, but it’s his synergy with Jokić that’s been the story of Murray’s first postseason since 2020.
Michael Porter Jr. knocking down shots and Aaron Gordon’s two-way ability has been vital to Denver’s success, but Jokić’s rapport with Murray is what makes Denver click. Jokić is Denver’s supreme playmaker, but Murray’s distribution has eased Jokić into better scoring positions. Surprisingly, among all passer-to-scorer duos, Murray-to-Jokić is eight more than any pair have accumulated in the two-man game according to PBPStats. In the final five minutes, their connection was on display when Murray drove the lane off a Jokić pick-and-roll, drew a crowd, then delivered his signature behind-the-back pocket pass to Jokić instead of flicking up a contested floater.
That’s become a favorite out of the Jokić-Murray collection. In the first round against Minnesota, Murray executed the same pass out of the PNR to Jokić, and it’s been seen in various forms over the years. Not even a supercharged combination of Devin Booker and Kevin Durant has been able to throw a wrench into the gears of the Jokić-Murray connection.
In the 2021 edition, Jokić was slowed by Ayton. Ayton has regressed defensively, or at least stagnated, while Jokić’s game has graduated to a higher plane.
Guarding Jokić is a quandary Phoenix hasn’t been equipped to solve. When he wants to, Jokić faces up, and scores as if Ayson isn’t even there. It’s one thing if he’d put in an effort, but he has been practically invisible throughout this series.
The Suns have found more success with backup center Jock Landale. In 32 minutes, Ayton was a minus-21, and his plus-minus through five games is a minus-59 through 148 minutes. But if Landale is their only hope, Phoenix is in bigger trouble than we thought. Ayton’s backup has a plus-27 in 74 and Jokić’s shooting percentage dips from 59.3 percent to 50 percent when he’s guarded by Landale.
Last year, it was Draymond Green bothering Jokić, but no matter who guards Jokić, there’s no stopping him when Murray is helping him get open for nifty floaters like this.
Jokić’s brilliance is spellbinding, but he’s not a one-man show. With Murray, he’s on the verge of returning to the Western Conference Finals. While the rest of the NBA discourse revolves around the AD-LeBron and Embid-Harden duos, Murray, and Jokić should have something to say about the neglect they’ve received nationally.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex