MIAMI — The NBA is Nikola Jokic’s world, and we’re just lucky to live in it. While America has been slow to fall in love with the Joker, he’s winning hearts from Nairobi, Kenya, to Belgrade, Serbia, where savvy basketball fans aren’t afraid to stand up and applaud him as the best player on the planet.
So let’s toast him with a glass of Rakija, a Serbian brandy as sweet as the 32 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists Jokic dropped on Miami on Wednesday night to lead the Nuggets to the most crucial victory in franchise history.
From Wilt Chamberlain to Michael Jordan, the NBA Finals have never witnessed a triple-double of the size and scope as this performance by Jokic.
But forget the numbers. All that matters to him is the W.
“To be honest, it’s just a stat,” Jokic said. “I don’t care.”
When the final buzzer sounded, and Denver had beaten the Heat 109-94 to regain an ironclad, no-doubt-about-it grip on this best-of-seven-series, the clock was already striking 5:02 a.m. Thursday in Serbia.
“Everybody in Belgrade is dizzy, because they stay up all night to watch the games,” said Edin Avdic, who broadcast Game 3 back to Jokic’s homeland. “The crews that sweep the streets are timing it to set their alarms at halftime, so they can watch the second half, then shave, shower and go straight to work.”
While Avdic noted he receives texts during games from Australia to Africa, marveling at Jokic for being a unicorn that’s 33% Tim Duncan, 33% Larry Bird, 33% Tracy McGrady (his childhood basketball hero) and 100% unstoppable, there are talking heads on national television who need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and determine if the maybe the reasons they’ve been so slow to respect his skills is rooted in red, white and blue jingoism.
Note to Stephen A. Smith, the ESPN blabbermouth who just this week made the absolutely indefensible, ridiculous claim that Jokic is “a big tub of lard.” Jokic never left the floor for a breather on the Denver bench during the second half until the game was in hand, when the Nuggets extended a 53-48 halftime advantage to as many as 21 points.
“Maybe we’re on to something here,” Malone told Jokic, as the real MVP walked off the court. “You may not ever come out in the second half the rest of this series.”
If the Nuggets hadn’t grown bored with their playoff success in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and let the Heat steal a victory, there would be a rush on brooms in hardware stores throughout Colorado.
Although Denver holds a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven-series, there’s no doubt which team is dominating the action. Jokic and his merry band of Nuggets have won 8 of 12 quarters against the Heat, with one period split and only three taken by Miami.
No disrespect to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo of the Heat, but they are no match for the magic that the tandem Jokic and running mate Jamal Murray can conjure when Denver needs to pull a crucial bucket out of its … hat.
“Nikola and Jamal Murray are one of the most lethal two-man combos in the NBA,” Malone said.
After a private conversation between Malone and his point guard at the start of Denver’s practice a day earlier, Murray responded with a triple-double for which Joker is known. Aggressive from the opening tip, Murray put up seven shots in the opening seven minutes of the first quarter, moved the rock when the Heat sent a double-team at him, and finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
“People ask: ‘It’s a big stage, do you get nervous and stuff?’ You’re supposed to be,” said Murray, who missed a 3-point shot that could’ve sent Game 2 to overtime. “That’s what makes you care. That’s what makes you alive. That’s what makes you enjoy these moments.”
Murray desperately wants to be an all-star in this league, an honor he’s never earned.
But his unrelenting ambition is what first made an impression on Jokic when Murray joined the Nuggets as the No. 7 overall pick in the first round of the 2016 NBA draft.
And Alex English, the leading scorer in Nuggets history, recently confided in me that he was certain a player known as the Blue Arrow would some day take the NBA by storm when the Canadian sharp-shooter was still a teenager who grabbed his eye in the league’s Basketball Without Borders program.
“There was no doubt in my mind Murray was going to be a star,” English told me last week. “The first time I saw him, before he ever went off to play in college for Kentucky, you could tell how badly he wanted it. Years ago, it was clear to me that Jamal Murray wanted to do more than impress on the court. His ambition was to make a lasting impression on the game of basketball.”
With two more victories against Miami, Joker and Jamal will achieve something nobody from David Thompson to Carmelo Anthony have been able to do in 56 seasons of pro hoops in Colorado.
Fire up the fire trucks. There’s going to be a parade celebrating the NBA champs in the streets of our dusty old cowtown, where Jokic and Murray will take their rightful place alongside John Elway and Joe Sakic as Colorado sports legends.