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Nikola Jokic has answered the call

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What more could be asked of Denver’s superstar?

“How will he hold up in the playoffs?”

Ever since Nikola Jokic became a full-time starter on December 15th, 2016, a singular thought has loomed over the Denver Nuggets franchise like a dark cloud. While many had preconceived notions on what to expect from the 7’0, 275 pound Serbian Center in April and May, the truth of the matter was: no one really knew until the time came to see what Nikola Jokic is all about.

Jokic may be the most unique player in the NBA, husky with an already sizable frame. A play style to match his light hearted and unselfish personality. Commonplace is the basketball IQ with which he tailors his game around — the quick reads, making the extra pass, and using angles and pressure points to maneuver the ball into the basket in interesting ways. The two most unique aspects of Jokic’s game though: the feathery grace which with he plays for such a large body, and the moments where he says “f*** that” and goes right for the jugular like a predator sensing a kill.

As has been made quite clear in these playoffs, Jokic making the right play doesn’t always lead to baskets, especially when the team simply doesn’t hit the shots needed to compete. According to the NBA website, Jokic is second in the NBA with 14.5 potential assists per game behind only Russell Westbrook, who was quickly eliminated by the Portland Trail Blazers that Denver’s playing now. During the last three games, Jokic is averaging 18.7 potential assists per game. The next closest Nugget, Jamal Murray, is averaging just 8.3 himself.

So much of these playoffs have been the Nuggets needing Joker to tap into that predator mentality, looking for his own scoring opportunities consistently and putting pressure on the defense to adjust to him. More often than not, Jokic is adjusting to what the defense gives to him, but there is only so far that mentality can take this Nuggets team. With multiple shooting performances that would make the Oklahoma City Thunder envious for their abhorrence, Jokic has been forced to step his game up and take scoring to the next level.

And he has answered the call.

Jokic is averaging 24.8 points per game on rock solid efficiency. A 49.7 field goal %, 39.5 three-point %, and 84.9 free throw % convert to 59.0 True Shooting %, a rock solid number given the number of shots Jokic is forced to put up. Among the league leaders in playoff usage, Jokic is proving that his scoring game translates to a playoff atmosphere, despite the added attention when his teammates are struggling.

In a league of giants, Nikola Jokic’s large frame stands out for his skill level.
Basketball Reference

There are very few players in the NBA with Jokic’s natural instincts and grace as a finesse player and the ability the take things to the next level as a volume scorer. The moves Jokic makes in these situations are unbelievable.

Jokic understands just how much room he needs to get his shots off in these situations. From a spinning floater out of the post to his standard running floater down the lane, it doesn’t matter how many bodies are in his way. Jokic just finds a way when he has to.

More than just his efficiency and touch, Jokic’s production around the scoring has been out of this world. Nuggets fans are used to the triple-double numbers he puts up consistently, but most NBA fans and the record books are still adjusting. Jokic is asked to score, rebound, and direct Denver’s offense on nearly every possession. He led the NBA in basketball touches per game during the regular season, and that number has skyrocketed to 128.6 per game, 31 more than second place Westbrook. His 206 touches in the Game 3 four overtime marathon smashed the record for total touches in a playoff game.

But it isn’t just the touches. Jokic is currently second in the NBA playoffs in rebounding (12.6) and second in the NBA in assists (9.1). Combined those numbers with a high penchant for steals, and Jokic is currently destroying the rest of the playoff field in two production metrics: Player Efficiency Rating (35.2) and Box Plus-Minus (+16.7).

Those two metrics are actually historically relevant. Only one player in NBA history has exceeded those two marks in a single playoff season: LeBron James in 2008-09.

How many points would the Nuggets be able to generate in these playoffs if Jokic wasn’t the fulcrum consistently?

No player in the NBA is asked to do as much for their team as Jokic is right now. Not James Harden. Not LeBron James. Not Giannis Antetokounmpo. Not Joel Embiid. Not Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant. This doughy guy from Serbia who still has to listen to people getting his name wrong consistently (it’s KNEE-co-lah YO-kitch for those still struggling).

Part of it is because he’s an awesome player. Part of it is the circumstance. Mason Plumlee has been real bad in these playoffs, and the Nuggets haven’t been able to get Jokic a lot of rest during the playoffs because of it.

Two-Man Net Ratings show just how much the Nuggets have struggled with Mason Plumlee on the floor.
NBA.com

Why did Jokic nearly break the record for most minutes played in a playoff game in NBA history last night? Because the Nuggets cannot survive without him. The first two columns of the above table prove that. Jokic has been able to mitigate the damage when playing next to Plumlee, but when Jokic goes to the bench? Disaster ensues. In 405 minutes with Jokic on the court, the Nuggets have posted a respected +5.8 Net Rating, highest among all Denver rotation players. In the 95 minutes he has sat? -13.7 Net Rating, lowest among the group. The Nuggets cannot survive without their superstar. They proved that last game. In a three point loss in which Jokic sat for just three minutes the entire game, Jokic was plus-5 in the plus-minus department.

Now, the Nuggets are down 2-1 in the series against the Blazers, and it’s hard to see what more Jokic can do to win this series and take the Nuggets to the Conference Finals. He’s shooting the ball well, creating shots for others, playing good enough defense, and anchoring everything the Nuggets do as a team. The rest of the roaster has to step up in some way, Mason Plumlee chief among them to finally get this man a breather.

But whatever happens during the rest of this series, the question of whether Jokic can handle a playoff atmosphere has been confirmed. He answered the call. Now it’s time to see who will join him.