Earlier in the playoffs, he was drawing comparisons to Wilt Chamberlain. This week, it’s Magic Johnson.
As the casual basketball fan — everyone, really — is finding out, Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic has no direct comparison.
The All-Star center is turning the NBA playoffs into his own grand stage with each triple-double he piles up. He’s in his own unique universe, showcasing his versatility — despite his limited leaping ability.
“Nikola Jokic is a great player, because you know why? He makes every one of his teammates better ,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, whose team is tied at 2 games apiece with the Blazers heading into Game 5 on Tuesday in Denver. “He’s a basketball purist, if you will. He’s always going to make the right play.”
The “pudgy” body and that awkward gait hardly fools anyone anymore. The lumbering 7-footer sees the court like a point guard, scores every way imaginable and is helping turn the Nuggets into legitimate contenders.
The player nicknamed Joker recorded his fourth triple-double of the postseason Sunday night, just over 36 hours after playing 65 minutes in a quadruple-overtime loss to Portland.
His name may be a bit of a tongue-twister — pronounced ni-KOLA YO-kitch — but it’s his game that truly ties teams up in knots.
“It’s really tough to stop him because he’s not out there running super-fast, not jumping super-high,” Blazers guard Damian Lillard said. “Just a smart, crafty player.”
He has MVP-caliber skills — passing, shooting, rebounding, and decision-making.
And he’s putting up numbers that has him in select company.
On Sunday, he helped Denver to a 116-112 win at Portland with 21 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. He’s the seventh player to register four triple-doubles in a single postseason, joining Chamberlain, Johnson, Oscar Robertson, LeBron James, Rajon Rondo and Jason Kidd, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
There’s more: Jokic had 14 assists in his playoff debut against San Antonio on April 13 to join Chamberlain as the only two centers with 14 or more assists in a postseason contest.
And more still: Jamal Murray and Jokic are the first teammates to register a 30-point game (Murray) and a triple-double (Jokic) in back-to-back playoff contests since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson in 1980, according to Elias.
The 250-pound Jokic runs the court with almost a waddle and has been known to look at referees with such an astonished expression after a foul is called on him — or not called on his opponent. He repeatedly gets bumped in the nose.
“More than anything he makes me smile,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose team was eliminated by the Nuggets after Jokic had 21 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in that series-deciding Game 7. “He has a lot of fun out there. He’s unorthodox and he doesn’t look the part. I’ve said it before — he’s kind of a tall, pudge guy out there with no real muscle definition. He doesn’t look athletic. He doesn’t sprint up and down the court. He doesn’t jump out of the gym and then he kicks your butt.”
Jokic sees the floor with a point guard’s vision — he bounced a pass through a Portland player’s legs for an easy layup — and has an array of shots to go with exquisite footwork and touch that makes him difficult to contain. He’s averaging 24.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 9.3 assists in the playoffs.
The question every coach keeps pondering is this: Take away his passing or his shooting?
“Good question,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s one of those players that you don’t know what to take away because whatever you take away he’s got something else.”
Jokic’s rise has mirrored that of the Nuggets, who drafted him in 2014 with the 41st overall selection. He’s come a long way since then, even cutting down on soda to keep up with NBA players. Malone decided to run his offense through Jokic during the ’16-17 season, leading the Nuggets to trade fellow big man Jusuf Nurkic to the Blazers.
Jokic guided the Nuggets to within a game of the playoffs last year before his breakout All-Star performance this season, when he helped the Nuggets to the second seed in the West and the NBA’s best home record.
A conversation with teammate Paul Millsap about taking over games played a role, too.
“Me: ‘Joker be more aggressive,'” Millsap recounted. “Him: ‘OK.'”
Just that simple for the cheerful center who signed a max contract last summer worth about $147 million over five years.
His passion isn’t limited to hoops. Jokic lights up with any mention of his race horses back home in Serbia. Or his pingpong prowess.
“It’s amazing how he transitions — off the court, he’s playful and funny,” teammate Torrey Craig said. “On the court, he’s all about business and being competitive.”
When asked if this stretch might be the best he’s ever played, Jokic shrugged.
“I don’t know if it’s the best,” Jokic said. “Probably, it is.”