The Denver Nuggets were way, way past their bedtime. The Golden State Warriors had the energy to pull an all-nighter.
It looked bad for the Nuggets—down five points with less than a minute left. Then, with four Warriors surrounding him, the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, with every bit of MVP strength in him, threw up one more shot to cut the lead to three.
This little dance could have gone on forever. The Warriors could have continued partying through the night. Jokic and the Nuggets could have kept on keeping up, refusing to go home. Only it didn’t.
In the very next possession, Steph Curry revved all over the court, shifting direction and speed until he found himself free for a layup, and Jokic–plagued by foul trouble–could only watch. Curry removed his mouthpiece, put both hands together to resemble a pillow, then tilted his head to resemble a sleeping motion. Good night, indeed.
The Warriors advanced to the second round by eliminating the Nuggets four games to one—but not without their fair share of bruises. Draymond Green, the Warriors’ version of a chief marshal, bore the brunt of it. He was mostly tasked to defend Jokic (before Klay Thompson was tapped for a box-and-one D), which sounds like a misnomer. How do you defend something indefensible?
Look at Jokic’s numbers for the series: 31.0 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 5.8 assists.
He did that while being face-guarded and banged up constantly by Green in the first few games then Thompson to close. When Game 5 ended, Green had to let Jokic know:
“Thank you for making me better.”
This has to be the greatest lasting imprint that a highly skilled—and not soft—player like Jokic leaves. Sure, he can make his teammates the best version of themselves with his playmaking. To make his defenders (and one of them a former Defensive Player of the Year at that) better, that’s special. Almost legendary.
Being legendary is a concept that’s casually thrown around in basketball conversations, but with what Jokic has done for the Nuggets this season, it might be the most accurate description.
Without their second and third best scorers in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets fought their way and persevered to get 48 wins. It was enough for sixth place in the Western Conference. Jokic took them there.
In 74 games played, Jokic averaged 33.5 minutes on the floor. He led the team in scoring, rebounding, and assists per game. Watch a random Nuggets’ highlight reel from this season and it’s guaranteed that Jokic’s fingerprints are all over them, even those when he’s at the bench, screaming out the play that the opposing team will run. His 7.9 assists per game made Aaron Gordon better. Those passes gave Monte Morris, Will Barton, and Bones Hyland open jumpers. It gave Jeff Green a new lease on life.
Next season will be troubling for the league, once the Nuggets get the full effect of what the paper said is their roster. Even more troubling is that after half a year of watching Jokic exhaust his energy in doing everything at an elite level, he finally gets to rest.
The 2021-2022 season for the Nuggets was one long night with a lot of bad news. When they were eliminated by a better, much deeper Warriors team in a competitive Game 5, it wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. It was probably even for the better. Now, there’s a fresh morning to look forward to.
The character they showed served as a warning for the 2022-2023 season: a basketball legend is wearing a Nuggets uniform. He really just needs a little more help.