We were so close to seeing Nikola Jokic take that next step, and maybe in a way we did. In a do or die game 82 the Denver Nuggets star put up thirty-five points and ten boards, he hit 4 of 7 threes and in the third quarter he kept the team in the game on sheer will alone. However, taking a closer look, there’s plenty to indicate that the Nuggets, and their star, wilted under the pressure. Jokic scored just five of his thirty-five points in the fourth quarter or overtime. Not a single teammate who played more than 20 minutes shot above 50% for the game and with a chance to win with 4 seconds to go Jokic was unable to get a shot up over Taj Gibson. For all the improvement Denver has shown over the past three seasons, they still are struggling to “get it done.”
The contrast between where the Nuggets are in terms of standing up to adversity versus a team like the Cleveland Cavaliers was strikingly evident last night. After being down 2-0 the Cavaliers have answered by beating the Boston Celtics in back to back games to even the series. Though technically both teams have simply held serve, losing either game 3 or 4 would have been catastrophic for Cleveland. Instead, despite the hot start to the series by the Celtics, Boston now faces the arduous task of either clinching a series on LeBron James’ homecourt, or beating him in a game 7. Neither of those options give a stroke of confidence to me when it comes to the Celtics.
Thats because, like the Nuggets, I worry that as such a young team they won’t have the mental toughness to push themselves over the edge when their back is against the wall. Take game four for example. LeBron obviously had an excellent night but it was veteran Kyle Korver who provided the spark to get them over the edge. Korver is traditionally known as a three point marksman but where he made a difference was in the effort he gave on the court and the savvy he had to always make the right play. Boston sans Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward has to lean on Korver’s former teammate, Al Horford, to provide that veteran leadership and mentality. While he’s certainly capable of that, there’s no Korver or Kevin Love or George Hill there to help push them over the top like LeBron has in Cleveland. Even though the Cavs have only tied the series, there’s a sense of confidence that they will ultimately be victorious simply because this is what they’ve been doing for years. Obviously, having LeBron freaking James is the biggest part of their ability to triumph over adversity but that wasn’t the case in his earlier years. It’s his talent mixed with his veteran experience that make him into the almost automatic finals bid that he is today.
The Celtics however are a similar situation to the Nuggets. Denver’s best player is clearly Jokic however the only member of the regular rotation (not counting Devin Harris here) with any significant playoff experience to speak of is Paul Millsap. It’s safe to assume that Denver’s only goal isn’t to just make the playoffs, but to go deep in them but right now they’re not equipped for that because they just don’t have the experience in these do or die games to overcome them. That’s not to say that they won’t or that Jokic won’t become a game 7 nightmare one day, but it is important to remember that next season, even in the 2019-2020 season, making it out of the first round is going to be a lot to ask of the Nuggets, especially if they are a lower seed. Rising to the occasion is a skill that isn’t inherent, it’s born of the pain of defeat and the desire to never feel that pain again. So maybe fading down the stretch of game 82 was good for Jokic and the Nuggets. We certainly saw that they had what it takes to get the ball rolling when their back was against the wall with the six game win streak, hopefully the painful loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves is the first lesson they needed in learning how to finish.