Given the circumstances, with the absences of young star Jamal Murray and key veteran Will Barton due to injury, the fact that the Denver Nuggets have progressed to the Western Conference Semifinals is an achievement in itself.
Not to mention the opponent they overcame - the experienced Portland Trail Blazers, led by superstar Damian Lillard. Defeating them in six games, the Nuggets became the only Conference Finalists from the 2020 bubble playoffs to advance past the first round.
How did they do this? One answer: Nikola Jokic.
The 26-year-old Serbian, who was crowned league MVP for the 2020-21 season after Game 1 of the Conference Semifinals against the Phoenix Suns, is the reason Denver has not just been competitive, but victorious as well.
Multi-dimensional selfless superstar
What makes Jokic dominant is his all-around skills.
He can hurt his opponents in multiple ways on offence - he scores in the post, shoots 3s and can be a decoy and set up his teammates with his all-time-level playmaking skills. And his defence has grown by leaps and bounds since he first joined the league, no more making him a liability on that end.
Take it from another franchise cornerstone in the league.
"I think we got a front-row seat to that in this series," Lillard said about Jokic's style of play after the Nuggets eliminated the Trail Blazers in Game 6.
"He's making 3s, scoring on the block, scoring at the free-throw line, getting to the free-throw line, he's making other guys better. He's everything for them, and I think if it was any year where a guy like him and what he does for that team could lead a team to a championship, it would be this year because of how open it is."
"I think he is the MVP."- Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) June 4, 2021
Damian Lillard explains why he thinks Nikola Jokic should be the 2021 NBA MVP. #NBAonSN pic.twitter.com/UijXA6Kuf2
In the series, Jokic averaged 33.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists on .528/.429/.917 shooting splits. It was these numbers and often times just his presence on the floor that allowed and helped the shorthanded Nuggets to defeat the Trail Blazers.
Against Portland's seasoned high-scoring backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum that averaged 51.9 points per game in the regular season, Denver fielded a guard rotation of:
|Regular season averages||Numbers vs. Trail Blazers|
|Facundo Campazzo (30-year-old rookie)||6.1 PPG and 3.6 APG||9.3 PPG and 5.2 APG|
|Monte Morris||10.2 PPG and 3.2 APG||15.3 PPG and 5.8 APG|
|Austin Rivers||8.7 PPG and 2.6 APG||11.5 PPG and 2.3 APG|
|Markus Howard (Undrafted rookie)||2.8 PPG in 5.5 MPG||5.5 PPG in 15.3 MPG|
Jokic not only made his supporting cast better but also upped his own numbers from the regular season to ensure victory.
"That's why he's the clear-cut MVP, because we can take anybody away from our team, but if we have Nikola, we're going to find a way to compete because that's how great he is," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after Game 6 in Portland.
Always improving and taking everyone along
The first-round playoff series against the Trail Blazers isn't the first time Jokic has risen to the occasion while taking his teammates along with him.
In fact, since the franchise chose him as their cornerstone and started building around him, the organization has gone as the 6-foot-11 centre has. His growth each year has seen the Nuggets go from a near-playoff miss in 2018 to the Conference Semifinals in 2019 to the Conference Finals in 2020.
|Season||W-L record (%)||West standings, Season ends||PPG||RPG||APG||Shooting efficiency|
|2017-18||46-36 (.561)||9th, Missed playoffs||18.5||10.7||6.1||49.9 FG% / 39.6 3P% / 85.0 FT%|
|2018-19||54-28 (.659)||2nd, Conf. Semis||20.1||10.8||7.3||51.1 FG% / 30.7 3P% / 82.1 FT%|
|2019-20||46-27 (630)||3rd, Conf. Finals||19.9||9.7||7.0||52.8 FG% / 31.4 3P% / 81.7 FT%|
|2020-21||47-25 (.653)||3rd, Conf. Semis*||26.4||10.8||8.3||56.6 FG% / 38.8 3P% / 86.8 FT%|
As the table suggests, Jokic has shown a drastic improvement in numbers year after year. This season, a condensed 72-game campaign where nearly every superstar missed games due to major injuries, health and safety protocols or load management, Jokic played every single game and still improved from an efficiency perspective.
It's a testament to Jokic's offseason work, especially in the strength-and-conditioning department, that has made him more mobile, agile and thus effective on the court.
Long-term or short-term, playing alongside Jokic not only helps his teammate's numbers but also makes the game a joy to play and easier for them.
"It just makes the game so easy," Gordon (acquired at the midseason trade deadline from Orlando Magic) said after his Nuggets debut, on playing alongside Jokic. "He makes the right reads, he's out there talking to us on the floor telling us what he wants to see from us."
Against the superior Phoenix Suns in the Conference Semis, expect Jokic to do more of the same - everything needed to make the Nuggets competitive and give them a chance at victory.
Bright bright future in Denver
The unique trait to make the game easier for your teammates combined with the off-the-court, no-nonsense attitude makes Jokic a near-ideal franchise superstar, one who could even emerge as the face of the league in a few years.
With the steady front office in Denver, that has carefully and successfully built a young yet capable team around their Serbian superstar, one thing is for sure: Irrespective of how and when their 2021 season ends, the Nuggets are here to stay and led by Jokic, they will remain a championship contender for the better part of the next decade.
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