There was probably no bigger unknown entity headed into the 2019 playoffs than the Denver Nuggets, who are currently knotted up at 1-1 in their second-round series with the Blazers. The Nuggets as a franchise hadn’t made the postseason since 2013, when Andre Iguodala and JaVale McGee were running the floor for George Karl. Denver’s new core of Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, and Paul Millsap banged its head against the postseason ceiling last year, before breaking through this spring after a spirited regular season saw them finishing second in the conference.
Even as the No. 2 seed, there were questions. How would the young players respond to playoff basketball? Could Denver’s style of play still work? The biggest questions centered on Jokic, the offensively gifted big man with the body of a sentient marshmallow and the game of Magic Johnson. Could Jokic’s plodding style—perhaps in some ways the antithesis of the modern game—still thrive when teams were 100% focused on highlighting his weaknesses? So far, the answer has been a resounding yes.
As we’ve seen in these playoffs and every one before it, the game’s very elite players can still struggle in a series when their flaws are relentlessly attacked. Ben Simmons was getting booed at home for his early ineffectiveness with the Sixers. Giannis Antetokounmpo dunked all over the Pistons but hasn’t quite looked like his MVP self against the Celtics. James Harden’s efficiency has suffered while defenses have loaded up on him. Opponents are selling out to stop players like Simmons, Giannis, and Harden, whether it means disrespecting their jump shots or cheating three extra steps off their teammates. The postseason is not only about strategic adjustments on a team level, but how the best players compensate when coaches are throwing the kitchen sink at them. Last year, we saw Damian Lillard wilt under the Pelicans hard traps; this year we saw him rip the Thunder’s heart out with big shot after big shot.
Jokic entered his first playoffs with questions to answer about his overall game. The biggest one was on the defensive end—could he stay on the court during high-leverage moments if teams were targeting him in pick and rolls? And offensively, would Jokic be aggressive enough as a scorer? He’s responded to both concerns with aplomb.
Jokic is still far from an A-plus defender. But he hasn’t been a disaster on that end, and most importantly, he hasn’t been played off the court. Just think about the first round, when Lillard was slicing OKC so effectively, Billy Donovan couldn’t use Steven Adams during the Thunder’s final minutes of the season, because Adams—a renowned defender!—was having trouble containing Lillard.
Now, Jokic is still mostly on the court because of his offense. But Denver’s scheme and Jokic’s own effort have been successful enough to keep him from being a minus on that end. Jokic willingly traps guards when called upon, which triggers backline rotations for the Nuggets that put a lot of pressure on the other defenders on the floor. But those teammates pick up for their center, who in turn rewards them with effort and active hands. Jokic isn’t a shot blocker, but he does have an uncanny ability of positioning his body in front of a driver in such a way to annoy their shot without picking up a foul.
As a team, the Nuggets have a 105.4 defensive rating when Jokic is on the floor in the postseason, which is an improvement on what they did with The Joker on the court during the regular year. (That 105.4 mark would’ve been the third best defense in the league this season.) It’s not that Jokic is a skilled defender, but Denver has shown, at least in this nine-game sample, that it can build an effective defense around Jokic, and that’s significant if this team hopes to have any long-term success with him as their best player.
Offensively, Jokic has always been a savant, but his love of passing sometimes means he’s, well, passive. Jokic hasn’t become a pure scorer, but he’s increased his points per game average in the postseason, while also playing more minutes, collecting more rebounds and assists, shooting better from three, and cutting down on his turnovers. In his first ever closeout opportunity, he scored 43 points on the road. In his first Game 7, he recorded a triple double.
This doughy goofball is only 24 years old, he’s in the playoffs for the first time in his life, and he’s improved his numbers across the board. And when he’s called upon to take over the offense, he does so without betraying his own style.
It would not have been a total shock for the Nuggets to have lost in the first round against an incredibly well-coached and disciplined Spurs team. In the second round, Denver ran into arguably the hottest player in the game in Lillard. The Nuggets haven’t set the world on fire, but they haven’t folded, and so far have responded incredibly well to adversity. That starts with Jokic, who probably hasn’t retired questions about his style of play forever, but is showing at this very moment he belongs in the postseason, and can elevate his play in high-pressure moments. For the Nuggets’ long-term future, Jokic taking his game to the next level means just as much as anything the team ultimately accomplishes during its first playoff run.