Nikola Jokic is garnering headlines after leading the Denver Nuggets to a 106-103 victory on the road against the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference, and rightly so.
The Toronto Raptors have one of the best home records in the league, and play in front of loud, passionate fans. It’s a difficult place to play, let alone get to, and the Nuggets had flown there from Portland, Oregon (technically, Portland is farther north than Toronto, so take that #WeTheNorth fans).
Gary Harris only played nine minutes last night, leaving the game with what was reported as a hip injury. One of Jokic’s best friends on the team, Will Barton, continues to miss time with an injury of his own. Jokic was a +15 in 36 minutes, which means in the 12 minutes he wasn’t on the floor, they were outscored by 12 points. If it wasn’t for Malik Beasley’s 15 points on eight shots off the bench, Denver loses this game.
Lost in all this hoopla is the fact that Jokic missed the only 3-point attempt he took, and he missed it badly, bricking it long against the backboard.
But there was another attempt, on the final Nuggets possession of the game, that should have counted, but didn’t. Let’s investigate.
The inbounds foul
Serge Ibaka made a mistake, fouling Nikola Jokic before the inbounds, giving the Nuggets a free throw and possession of the ball. While physical play is permitted by the referees in the final seconds, and will be permitted in the playoffs, Ibaka has his arm across Jokic’s chest and is grabbing his jersey — directly in front of an official.
With the emphasis on freedom of movement, the referee made the correct call. Could it have gone uncalled? Sure, but Ibaka committed a foul. We’ll have to await the last two minute report to see if it was officially correct. The last two minute report can be found by clicking here when it is published (as of time of this article’s publishing, it wasn’t released).
The foul meant that the Raptors needed to get the ball back for a chance to tie or win, and needed to commit a foul (after the ball was inbounded) to create a situation where they could win.
The inbounds pass
Jokic starts the play on the right wing, and Murray sets a screen on Ibaka, creating a situation where the defense would need to switch to deny the pass. Leonard, while an elite defender, doesn’t recognize immediately what is happening, and is a step late. Jokic catches the ball a long ways from the hoop, with his back to the rim.
Jokic brings the ball over his head, and Leonard bumps into him to commit the foul. After feeling the contact, and anticipating the whistle, Jokic flails his arms in a combination that results in the ball leaving his hands, on a course of flight in the direction of the basket.
Look at the heads of every player on the court. Every single player is tracking the path of the basketball — except for Jokic, who LOOKS AWAY FROM THE BASKET when he lets go of the ball. While he’s trying to get three free throws, he’s also acknowledging that this is a prayer, a futile attempt at directing the ball in the area of the hoop, to try to sell a foul that even he knows wasn’t on a shot attempt.
Freeze the video right after the ball goes through the hoop. It draws back iron, but with the spin on the ball, redirects straight through the net.
Juancho Hernangomez realizes, “Holy crap that just went in,” and the infectious joy of watching Nikola Jokic manifests through his body, elevating his arms above his head and sprouting a smile onto his face.
The joy spreads from Juancho to Malik Beasley, who was the Nuggets player farthest away from the ball. His assignment was to run up court if the other options were covered, but from his vantage point, he has the best view of the shot. His hands raise skyward, only to fall as he proclaims what must be astonishment. If he had said “Surely, this man must be from another planet,” I wouldn’t be surprised.
Jamal Murray’s adulation is transparent. The Canada native was tied with Jokic at that time in points scored for the game at 21, but the coaches had drawn up a play where he sacrificed for the greater good. This embodiment of the teachings of John Stuart Mill may not have been recognized by Murray, but it was on full display in this brief moment of time. He approaches Jokic, stunned, barely able to summon the energy to leap into Jokic’s arms to celebrate with an embrace. Jokic, afraid that his hot hands might burn his point guard upon contact, keeps his hands by his side, declining to hoist his teammate into the air like a modern day Patrick Swayze.
Karl Lane has been a NBA official for seven years. The 43-year-old has likely been watching basketball his whole life, and he’s as familiar as possible with the rules of the sport. While Jokic is able to bend the laws of time and space, he isn’t able to bend the rules of the sport. The foul occurred before the act of shooting in Lane’s eyes, and he waves his hands above his head, dismissing the made shot. He forcibly gesticulates towards the floor, destroying the idealistic realm of being that Jokic had taken everyone watching the game to with the piercing sound of his whistle.
In the words of the immortal Rasheed Wallace, “ball don’t lie.” While Jokic was denied the basket by the laws of justice, mercy triumphed at the free throw line. Jokic made both free throws, giving the Nuggets a three point lead with 5.6 seconds remaining on the clock.
Kyle Lowry would seek out the game-winning shot, but after a dramatic climax to the game by the hands of Jokic, his 3-pointer would not, could not, and did not fall, unsuccessfully clanging away as the final buzzer sounded.
And later, Jokic would dance to his own tune, enjoying the music that fills his world. We were just lucky enough to hear a glimpse of that song.
Other Jokic praise
In case you missed the game last night, here’s a collection of things written about the big win over the Raptors:
- Nuggets escape sticky game with win over Raptors, 106-103 - Daniel Lewis, Denver Stiffs
- Nikola Jokic posts a triple-double in Denver’s road win over the Raptors - Brendan Vogt, Denver Stiffs.
- The Nuggets have their latest statement win of the season - Paolo Uggeti, The Ringer
- It doesn’t matter where of who — Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets can beat you - Tim Bontempts, ESPN
- Nikola Jokic is an artist - Chris Thompson, Deadspin
- Nuggets top NBA-best Raptors behind Nikola Jokic’s monster triple-double - Ben Weinrib, Yahoo Sports