The man who is expected to win one the closest MVP battles in recent memory has supplied fuel to his detractors.
Nikola Jokić could use a little of that Mile High air because he’s struggling mightily near sea level in San Francisco. A different Splash Brother has taken the lead in creating a tsunami of points that capsized the Nuggets’ schooner during the first two games of their playoff series.
Once the series shifts back to Denver on Thursday, Jokić will have to prove he’s got the playoff juice. The Nuggets entered this series as the underdog. Still, they’re getting drowned by Jordan Poole and Steph Curry. In 63 minutes he’s spent on the floor, Jokić has been outscored by 63 points.
When guarded by Draymond Green, he might as well have been some weekend warrior getting pushed around an LA Fitness court. Green’s energy, physicality and quick hands had Jokić picking up his dribble early and firing up desperation clangers off the rim. Sure, he finished with 26 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, but many of those points came on possessions when he was matched up against Kevon Looney. When Denver needed Jokić to halt the Warriors’ momentum, Green was there to jailhouse him in a 126-106 blowout.
Green is a frustrating assignment for Jokić. He is the rare small ball 5 who can keep up with Jokić anywhere on the floor defensively and still not be a liability on the offensive end. The last time an MVP looked this anemic against the Warriors was Dirk Nowitzki in 2007. Granted, those “We Believe” Warriors were an 8-seed facing a 1, but Nowitzki’s temperament and accompanying struggles in that series reshaped the perception about him until 2011.
Green’s physical defense eventually led to Jokić complaining to officials and earning a second technical. Next month, he’ll likely win his second consecutive MVP, but once the postseason swings into action, his game plateaus, whereas Giannis’ and Embiid’s kick into a higher gear.
Jokić was visibly flustered in Game 2 as his ego was pummeled worse than the Nuggets fan who caught hands from the “Suns in 4” fan. That series also ended with Jokić’s temper flaring in Game 4 of their sweep at the mercy of the Suns. The Nuggets only trailed by eight when Jokić slapped recklessly at the ball and slapped Cameron Payne in the face. Devin Booker stood up for his fallen teammate and Jokić took the bait, puffed out his chest against Booker and earned a season-ending ejection.
In November, Jokić’s temper again got the best of him when he violently shoved Markieff Morris from behind during a victory over the Heat on Nov. 8. Before Game 2, Green was convinced Jokić was about to erupt following a flat Game 1 performance from Joker.
“I feel like he’s going to try to come out and give me 40 [points], 15 [rebounds] and 15 [assists] next game. He’s pissed off and coming back with a vengeance tomorrow.” Green said at the podium following Golden State’s Game 1 win.
Instead, he imploded. Jokić will have two games in front of a home crowd to rise into the stratosphere and meet the Warriors’ challenge though. As the Splash Brothers get reacquainted with postseason basketball, the reigning MVP pushes Sisyphus’ rock up the hill. There are three Splash Brothers and only one of him. Jokić’s all-around game is vital to the Nuggets, but the additional scoring punch he needs in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are unavailable.
Game 3 is looming and one of those death squad Warriors is bound to come back down to earth outside the Chase Center. That anger Jokić has expressed between plays needs to translate into possessions he’s been meandering through.