Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets weren’t expected to do much in the NBA playoffs, they’ve both answered every question posed to them since the postseason began.
The Denver Nuggets could scarcely have had a more humiliating first four games of the NBA playoffs against the Utah Jazz. After a Game 1 win, they got their doors blown off over the next three games in mortifying fashion, losing by a combined 58 points. Nikola Jokic and crew looked like they were ready to go home.
To hear the NBA TV commercials tell the story, the turning point in that series came when Jamal Murray was folding laundry in his room before Game 5, and he told his teammates they weren’t going home. That’s my favorite version as well.
Of course, Murray has had a spectacular, almost unbelievable 2020 NBA playoffs run. He’s scoring 27.1 points per game on 50.2 percent from the floor, 49.1 percent from 3-point range and 91.3 percent from the free throw line. This is unbelievable production for a player who averaged a career-best 18.5 points in the regular season on shooting splits of .456/.346/.881.
In fact, if there was a Most Improved Player award that compares regular season with playoff production, Jamal Murray would be the winner by a landslide.
While Murray has been amazing, the Denver Nuggets have had one of the most reliable playoff performers on their side. That playoff powerhouse is Nikola Jokic.
Thanks to Jokic’s physique and unique skillset, there have been questions about his ability to carry the load in the playoffs. These questions have even persisted in spite of the fact that a year ago we did indeed see him do just that. This postseason run, however, puts all of those bad-faith queries to bed, no matter how the Western Conference Finals end up against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Nikola Jokic is a rare player whose output increases significantly once the NBA playoffs begin, and he’s done that in both of his postseason runs.
In the 2018-19 regular season, he averaged 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game with shooting splits of .511/.307/.821. In that postseason, his production skyrocketed to 25.1 points, a league-leading 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game with shooting splits of .506/.393/.846.
This season, he averaged 19.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 7.0 assists in the regular season, and in the playoffs, his numbers jumped to 25.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game with shooting splits of .515/.440/.830.
Jokic has played an unbelievably heavy load in crunch time, and high-leverage crunch time to boot. Considering the Nuggets have played two straight seven-game series in the first two rounds (after doing the same a year ago), every minute matters for this team. In clutch time (defined by the NBA as ahead or behind by five points or less with five minutes or less remaining), Jokic has played 26.6 minutes in seven games and has shot the cover off the ball in a delightfully small sample.
In the clutch, Jokic is shooting 7-of-10 from the floor, 3-of-4 from 3-point range and 4-of-4 from the free throw line. It’s small-sample perfection, exactly the kind of thing that can propel a team that suddenly appears to be built more for the moment than anybody expected. By the way, Jamal Murray’s clutch shooting is absurd. He’s 14-of-22 from the field and 7-of-9 from 3-point range.
It’s incredible to think that if Murray was just 6-of-9 from 3-point range, the Nuggets likely wouldn’t have beaten the Jazz in the first round.
The Denver Nuggets have made it to the Conference Finals with a negative net rating, just an absurd feat. Their -1.5 net rating ranks them ninth in the NBA, behind the fourth-place LA Clippers (who they just vanquished) at +4.2 and the sixth-place Utah Jazz at +3.5.
We may never see another run quite like this where a team that simply refuses to lose keeps charging forward, but if we do, it will probably once again be the Denver Nuggets propelled forward by their most unique of superstars.