Playoff Jokic flying under the radar

Published May 15, 2023, 2:00 PMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

Nikola Jokic’s superhuman performances in the playoffs have not been getting the same kind of attention that other superstars are getting.

Whenever the playoffs roll along, there are new characters that emerge. Superhero versions of regular NBA players suddenly show up and show out. Playoff Butler. Playoff Rondo. Game 6 Klay. Closeout Game LeBron. Lower Seed Luka. In the regular season, these players are awesome in their own right. But in the playoffs, these superstars suddenly become superhuman.

It takes a special kind of performance to earn a playoff character. A single 40-point outburst or triple-double won’t do. There has to be a sustained level of excellence in the playoffs for a player to get their new persona.

This season, there might be a superhero flying under the radar.

Nikola Jokic is a two-time MVP. He almost won his third straight MVP this season. But, for all his regular season accolades, he doesn’t have the playoff resume that players with less hardware than him have. Apart from one Western Conference Finals appearance in the NBA Bubble, the Denver Nuggets under his leadership have flamed out of the playoffs every single year.

This season, Jokic has carried the Nuggets not only to the top of the heap in the West, but also all the way to the deep end of the playoffs.

It started in the first round where he powered through the young Minnesota Timberwolves who tried to neutralize him with their two seven-footers. Jokic didn’t have the best series, but even in his off games, he still found a way to make an impact. In the closeout game of that series, he dominated the paint and scored crucial buckets to deliver the win, all while Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert watched helplessly from the bench.

Facing an even tougher opponent in the Phoenix Suns, Jokic was able to find another level with his game. After averaging “only” 26-12-9 in the first round, he put up a ridiculous 34-13-10 line in the six games against the Suns. Jokic has also played some incredible basketball when the Nuggets have needed him the most.

In the grind-it-out Game 2 against the Suns when nothing was falling for the Nuggets, Jokic took it upon himself to generate the offense his team needed. Known more for his passing, the Joker became a little bit greedier on the offensive end. Up by only one point midway through the fourth, Jokic scored six of the team’s next eight points to give them enough separation. He nailed the dagger in the final minutes of the game to secure the win. In that game, he finished with 39 points and 16 rebounds.

To close out the Suns, Jokic didn’t wait until crunchtime. He went to work early to help the Nuggets pull away. Up by only one point in the first period, Jokic scored or assisted in three of the final seven possessions of the Nuggets in the quarter to give them an 18-point lead. When Phoenix threatened again in the second period, Jokic finally closed the door on them.

He scored on back-to-back baskets in the paint, then followed it up with an assist to Jamal Murray for a 3-pointer and another score inside. The Nuggets were up by 24 after that barrage and took the fight out of the Suns completely.

With the numbers he’s putting up and the dominance he’s displayed against the Suns, everyone should be going gaga over Jokic just like they have with Jimmy Butler in this year’s playoffs. But they’re not. In fact, the most attention given to Jokic was when he had a minor altercation with the Suns team owner.

Is it because the Nuggets have been beating their opponents so soundly that there’s no attention-grabbing moment like Butler’s shot against the Milwaukee Bucks? Are fans tired of the Jokic narrative after back-to-back MVP seasons? Is everything Jokic is doing getting drowned out by the louder storylines of other playoff series?

It seems as if Jokic doesn’t care about all that. He’s been playing like a superhuman in these playoffs, but under the guise of a secret identity. Jokic is content to let the LeBrons, Jimmys, and Embiids get the limelight. He’s done his job so far. The Nuggets are quietly back in the West Finals and are the favorites to make the Finals with how they’re playing. The rest of the teams still in the playoffs shouldn’t be surprised though when they do meet Denver and Playoff Jokic is flying high, dominating their teams.