Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić continues historic play in second round

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

The Denver Nuggets’ 2018-19 season came to an end in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. Although Denver wasn’t able to make it to the conference finals, the team enjoyed plenty of success over the past month of playoff basketball. The driving force of postseason success this has been Nikola Jokić, who finished the second round with averages of 27.1 points, 13.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game.

Despite questions surrounding the team’s lack of postseason experience, Jokić consistently stepped up his play on both ends of the floor to will the Nuggets to victory. Throughout the second round, Portland simply had no answer for Denver’s All-Star, who scored from all areas of the court while also creating quality opportunities for teammates.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Jokić’s play in the second round was the increase in playing time he shouldered while his production never suffered. After averaging 37.1 minutes per game in the first round, Jokić played 42.1 minutes per contest against Portland. However, all of his statistical averages increased in the second round.

"I think it speaks to Nikola's greatness and that he is never afraid of the moment or overwhelmed,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said following Denver’s first-round series victory. “Anytime your best player has that kind of poise and leadership, that will definitely help guys out. I think that's a great thing to have, and that's why Nikola is a leader for our team."

The most physically demanding game of the postseason came in Game 3, in which Denver fell in four overtimes. Jokić played 65 minutes in that game and put up 33 points, 18 rebounds and 14 assists as the Nuggets fought until the end. In what many have come to expect from the 24-year-old, he responded with a triple-double in a crucial Game 4 victory that turned the series around.

"He (Jokić) has been doing this all year,” Nuggets forward Paul Millsap said early on in the second round. “He's showed poise and fought through adversity. He's shown that he can handle whatever a defense throws at him, and that's the most important thing. He's seeing every coverage there is and adjusting on the fly, making the right reads anyways. Whatever it is, he'll figure it out."

In the win-or-go-home Game 7, Jokić once again led the way with 29 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks. Despite the disappointing end to the season, it’s clear that the Nuggets have a transcendent star in Jokić at the helm.

“He's (Jokić) a guy that's so calm and cool, very high IQ,” Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said during the latter stages of the second round. “He loves to get everyone involved and always makes the right play. He loves to play the game the way he plays. Very unselfish, makes everyone feel they are part of the offense. It's a lot of fun to play with him.”

Murray went on to continue praising Jokić for his unique passing ability from the center position. "He has some passes where you know he sees the help defense and where everyone is going to be. His IQ, you can see that he played the point growing up."

In the first round, Jokić’s strong defense against LaMarcus Aldridge was key in leading the Nuggets to the series victory. San Antonio’s All-Star shot just 45 percent from the field when guarded by Jokić. In a more offensive-oriented second-round series, the 24-year-old stepped up as a scorer, increasing his average by four points per game while he shot five percent higher from the field against Portland. Of course, all of this occurred while Jokić averaged over seven assists per game.

As Denver looks to grow and build on the promising 2018-19 campaign, Jokić will continue to be the leader and driving force on the team.

"I would say it (Jokić’s playoff performance) has only strengthened my belief that he is a future Hall-of-Famer, All-NBA player and MVP candidate,” Malone said ahead of Denver’s first win-or-go-home matchup. “His first time in the playoffs and he is going out there and playing at an unbelievably high level. Nikola embraces the moment."

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