PORTLAND -- The biggest game of the season – the most important night of his brief career – had arrived as a surprise. Neither Nikola Jokic nor his Denver Nuggets were supposed to be contending for the playoffs.
The Nuggets were in this position, engaging with the Trail Blazers for control of the No. 8 seed, because of Jokic, their 22-year-old center. He had been shifted into the starting lineup in mid-December, and since mid-January Denver had gone 21-15 while becoming No. 1 offensively in the NBA.
"No one in the organization -- including Tim Connelly, our GM who drafted Nikola -- will ever sit here and say this is what we envisioned,’’ said Denver coach Michael Malone. "We did not envision Nikola Jokic, as a second-round pick from Mega Leks (his club in Serbia) to be the player that he is right now.’’
When he elevated the No. 41 pick of the 2014 Draft to the starting lineup of his Nuggets, who were 9-16 at the time, Malone was investing in a passing center. It was the inverse of Don Nelson’s long-ago vision for Dirk Nowitzki. Nelson had imagined a deep-shooting 7-footer of a style that had never existed; Malone was reinventing his team around a 6-foot-10 center whose models -- including Bill Walton and Arvidas Sabonis -- no longer exist.
"That is what has made us so hard to guard this year,’’ said 37-year-old Nuggets guard Mike Miller of their passing center. "Nobody else has it. The closest thing I can think of is right now is Marc Gasol -- dominate the game with eight points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists. He’s a special talent.’’
The merry-go-round Nuggets have learned to move constantly around Jokic with confidence that he will create easy scores for them if they can just get open. His passes on the move and off the dribble with either hand provide them with open looks. It’s as if their roster has been laden with players who can create their own shots -- which in fact are created by Jokic, who already ranks No. 2 among NBA centers in assists (4.7). Jokic has generated five triple-doubles since Feb. 3, which ranks him No. 4 for the season behind MVP favorites Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James.
"It was a defining moment in our season,’’ said Malone of Jokic’s ascension in December. "We gained an identity.’’
Here, on Tuesday, arrived a moment of truth. Jokic was matched against the teammate he had displaced in Denver. Jusuf Nurkic, who had started the first 25 games for the Nuggets before being replaced in the lineup by Jokic, had been traded in February to Portland, where his intimidating presence had an impact on the Blazers similar to that of Jokic on the Nuggets. The Blazers had won 11 of 14 while ranking among the league leaders offensively and defensively in March, putting them in an unanticipated tie (36-38) with Denver for the final playoff spot in the West.
The two young centers were attacking from the opening minutes Tuesday they were going at each other. Jokic posted up for a layup and then hit a 3-pointer, while Jurkic backed up his former teammate for a layup of his own. Damian Lillard fed Jurkic trailing through the lane past Jokic for a three-point play that brought the Portland fans to their feet. Ten minutes into the opening quarter there was applause as each big man went to his bench like fighters to their opposing corners. The Blazers were up by a scant 31-28, and the early sparring between Jokic and his opponent, with nothing less than the playoffs at stake, was even.
Job? More like a pickup game
What is the favorite part of your job?
"This is not the job,’’ said Jokic, shooting down the premise with a smile. "We are just playing the game here. I am enjoying the game. I am playing every game as a game of pickup basketball in my hometown.’’
His point of view rang true. Jokic, averaging 16.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists in his second NBA season, has been experimenting and creating as if no one was watching, as if playing the game he loves among friends and strangers alike.
He was sitting on the team bench after the morning shootaround on Tuesday in his characteristic hunch, with his ever-present smile, ready to translate serious questions into friendly little jokes.
"We just want to go out there and play,’’ Jokic said. "We know that the crowd is going to be on their side. It will be fun.’’
Having fun was a theme he repeated in every context. Of his reunion later that night with Nurkic, he said, "It’s going to be fun, I think.’’ Of his new teammate Mason Plumlee, the backup center who had arrived in the Nurkic trade, Jokic joked: "He want to compete. I think he is a little bit too much serious about that.’’
"No one in the organization -- including Tim Connelly, our GM who drafted Nikola -- will ever sit here and say this is what we envisioned."
Jokic’s attitude was neither a deception nor a way to deflect pressure. It was, in fact, the reason he had become the NBA’s biggest surprise.
He had looked nothing like a professional center during his teenage years in Serbia. "He will tell you he was a young fat point guard growing up,’’ said Malone. And so now it was as if he was playing with house money. Jokic insisted on the morning of his biggest game that he would not feel pressure later that night.
"Pressure is just bad things for you,’’ he said. "You just need to go and -- I’m telling you -- every game is (like) the game of pickup basketball in my hometown. You need to go with that mentality and play the game. No pressure. Yes, you need to do something. But it’s just a game.’’
He had always approached basketball from this nothing-to-lose, everything-to-gain point of view. "My dad is not really a relaxed guy,’’ Jokic said for the sake of comparison. "He’s nervous. He wants to do everything. But I am completely opposite to him. I am calm.’’
In which case he must have driven his father crazy. "Yes, oh my god,’’ said Jokic with laughing exasperation. "Thousand times, even one million times - even now. I drive him crazy right now because I am so calm and nothing can touch me.’’
He was recalling the many times when his father would try to make him approach basketball more seriously. "He would say, 'How you can be that calm? Look at that!’’’ said Jokic. "And I have two brothers, they have a really bad temper, they’re also nervous and all that.’’
They would think that their younger brother didn’t care as much as they did. "Probably, probably,’’ agreed Jokic, even though he knew that they were wrong. There is no way that Jokic could create so many beautiful plays of ingenuity without reaching deeply into his imagination to make them so.
As a rookie last year, when he found himself on the court with Tim Duncan for the first time, he had to convince himself that he belonged in the NBA. "I mean, I really like Tim Duncan, and when I play against him that’s really a big deal for me,’’ Jokic said. "Then you step on the floor. If you think that he has achieved something, or he was something, or he wants something, then you are not going to be good in that game. You cannot think about him. You have to think about yourself. You just need to go there and play your game your normal game.’’
He has turned the corner. He does not see the game from the point of view his more famous opponents. All that matters to Jokic now is his own unique vision and the desire to fulfill his imagination.
He is that rare young talent who does not make the game more complicated than it needs to be. He has succeeded, so far, in getting out of his own way.
Nurkic's revenge against Denver
By the second quarter of this game on Tuesday, Nurkic was taking it to him. At halftime, Nurkic led all scorers with 21 points to go with eight rebounds, two assists, a blocked shot and no turnovers. Jokic, by comparison, had 11 points, five rebounds and three turnovers -- but he also had generated five assists to keep his team within 66-64 of the hometown Blazers.
Afterward, Lillard’s teammates would explain why they had entered the game with great confidence in their new teammate Nurkic. "He's had this game circled since he got here,’’ said C.J. McCollum, who would lead all scorers with 38 points.
"Last night he actually reached out to me and said, 'I need you tomorrow,’’’ said Lillard, who added 19 points and seven assists. "He really wanted to win this game.’’
Nurkic, 22, had learned the secret of elevating his game when his team needed it most. Which, in turn, will be the standard by which Jokic will be judged someday.
Grounded without an ego
"Do you dream about basketball in your sleep?’’ Jokic was asked on the morning of the biggest game.
"No, no,’’ he said, smiling. "To be honest, I have bad dream last night. My last dream was bad dream. Some guy -- actually two guys are chasing me and beating me. It was not good dream.’’
The pressure on players -- as generated by the fans, at least -- is much greater in Europe than in the NBA, said Jokic. Most NBA players with European experience would not argue with this point. The fans of Serbia, Greece, Turkey and other European leagues are more passionate and demanding than NBA fans.
That point of view changes in the playoffs, however. The internal pressures tend to be magnified tremendously by the NBA postseason. But that lesson has not been passed onto Jokic as yet.
"To be honest, everybody told me the playoffs is just fine,’’ Jokic said. "It’s just playing the games.’’ Asked whether he can imagine feeling intimidated by the pressure of a deep playoff series, he said: "I don’t think that it is ever going to happen to me.’’
"Obviously with pressure comes a lot of that stuff where you start looking at things negatively,’’ said Miller, who provided Jokic with his nickname "The Joker.’’ "There hasn’t been anything negatively said about him. He hasn’t gone through that part of the league yet. He’s going to hit those things. Then it’s about who you have around you when you go through it. And I think he’s going to have the right people around him.’’
As Jokic continues to improve and push his team closer to contention, he will experience greater demands and criticism when he falls short.
"I think it’s a great question,’’ said Malone. "Right now he’s the feel-good story, and everybody loves Joker and what a great kid he is and how unselfish he is and all of the behind-the-back passes. But the criticism will come: Can he lead his team to the playoffs? Can he lead his team to wins in the playoffs? I think it’s those trials and tribulations and criticisms that build great players. He’s on his way, and I think that’s going to be part of his journey, part of his process.
"Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas -- every great player has to go through it. I coached LeBron for five years, LeBron went through it. At some point Nikola is going to be criticized, and he’s going to have to face adversity. Right now this is year two for him and no one picked us to make the playoffs. In the future it’s going to be, OK, enough feel-good. We want results. I think he’s grounded, he’s got no ego, he comes into work every day and he doesn’t let all the outside noise affect him. And when that time comes where he is being criticized and facing that adversity, I think he’s going to handle it well because of where he’s from, his family background, and his mental toughness.’’
The point that Malone was making was that the criticism can’t come soon enough. The Nuggets will want their Joker to turn the corner into contention as quickly as possible.
"No doubt,’’ said Malone. "Because once that days happens, that means we’re on the precipice of doing something great. We have some really good players on this team, but he is the face of this franchise. He is our future. And it’s exciting to see where he’s going to take us.’’
Not fearing adversity
In the visitors lockerroom late Tuesday night, Jokic stood up to leave without realizing that several reporters were waiting to speak with him. The modes of leadership were still new as he spun around to answer questions about the 122-113 loss that severely damaged the playoff hopes for his Nuggets.
"We tried our best, but we didn’t do anything,’’ said Jokic, who contributed 17 points, eight assists, eight rebounds and two blocks. "They wanted it more than us.’’ He stopped himself, thought about what he had said, and then nodded. "Yeah, they wanted it more than us.’’
How could a young center in his second year be criticized for generating a near-triple-double? And yet, in this matchup of old teammates, Jokic had been outperformed. Nurkic, his former understudy, had played the game of his life: 33 points (12-for-15 from the field), 16 rebounds, three blocks, two assists and several standing ovations as the Blazers generated 16 offensive rebounds and 28 second-chance points. "Nurkic obviously kicked our a**,’’ said Malone. "You can’t go on the road and get your a** kicked on the glass like that and give out 28 points.’’
Jokic had embraced Nurkic on the court after the game. "I expected it,’’ said Jokic of his opponent’s enhanced performance. "We all expected it because I know his temper. I knew that he was going to be aggressive and try to have the game of his life.’’
The feel-good story was already beginning to change, and there was nothing wrong with that. Adversity is not to be feared. In a way that would probably make Jokic smile, he was starting to realize that becoming a subject of criticism, for a young man of such overwhelming potential, is going to be the next goal.
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