You just don’t know until you know.
It’s something the smartest people in the NBA realize — that for all the projections, all the analytical models, all the scouting, all the preparation, you just don’t know until you do.
And with the Denver Nuggets’ 90-86 win in Game 7 on Saturday against the San Antonio Spurs, we know that Nikola Jokic is going to be a problem for teams in the playoffs for a very long time.
First, he’ll be Portland’s problem in the Western Conference semifinals.
Jokic finished the game dead tired after playing 43 minutes, scoring 21 points with 15 rebounds and 10 assists in the first Game 7 of his career. It’s what he did all series, as the 24-year-old center averaged 23.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 9.1 assists.
The only player in NBA history to do that for an entire postseason is Oscar Robertson — 56 years ago.
“It’s only strengthened my belief that he’s a future Hall of Famer,” Denver coach Michael Malone said before Game 7. “He’s an All-NBA player, a MVP candidate. It’s his first time in the playoffs and this guy is going out there and playing at an unbelievably high level. …You want to see how guys react to those situations. Do they shy away from it? Do they embrace it? Nikola embraces it…. How confident does he look? How under control and poised does he look? He’s playing like the best player in this series.”
With both teams struggling, Jokic played unburdened of the playoffs’ biggest stakes. As everyone else fired brick after brick, nerves obviously a factor, the ball floated from Jokic’s hand, softly hitting the rim and rolling in.
For Denver’s first score, he spun off Spurs center Jakob Poeltl with zero friction, a move so quick from a player who moves so slowly.
Later in the quarter, he hit a H-O-R-S-E shot from the left baseline, lofting the ball over the backboard.
“I think the team expected me to do something. I’m just trying to go out there and play my best basketball,” Jokic said.
Malone said he was willing to stick with Jokic for all 48 minutes if need be — news that probably didn’t sit well with the All-Star center. After all, he did say the “running” was the hardest part about participating in the Skills Challenge during All-Star Weekend.
But when Jokic plays, the Nuggets have the best player on the court.
At times Jokic looks like a beached walrus, cruelly forced to run up and down the court with his 7-foot, 250-plus-pound frame a mile above sea level. But even when he looks on the verge of fainting, Jokic can still grab big rebounds and lead a fast break the other way.
And, how many beached walruses in NBA history pass like Magic Johnson?
As the Spurs defense tightened and as Jokic’s legs got heavier as he logged more minutes, he started to pick apart the San Antonio defense with his passing. He had no other choice.
“Being tired, being in some pain, being injured, it’s a part of the business. You have to fight through,” he said.
Jokic missed seven of eight shots in the second half before hitting a little floater midway through the fourth quarter. Before that, he had to use what scouts think differentiates him — his court vision and passing.
He found Jamal Murray off a couple of high-handoff plays. He hit Gary Harris on a perfect lob out of a timeout. As the Spurs trimmed the Nuggets’ lead in the third quarter, Jokic ended up assisting on six of Denver’s 10 baskets in the quarter.
But the legs got slower. As the possessions meant more, Jokic ended up giving less. He was slow to close out on shooters. He couldn’t move off his man to challenge DeMar DeRozan at the rim. And the ball was finding him less and less on offense.
The Spurs saw it. They attacked, putting Jokic in pick-and-rolls. He had chances in the paint and missed. He had a shot at a dagger three and missed.
That emergency reserve of fuel, that final thrust, wasn’t there. But one final assist and one key rebound sealed the win.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen come playoff time,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a longtime admirer, said before Game 7. “And he’s risen to the occasion and beyond.”
And the Nuggets advanced because of it.