At the end of the third quarter of Game 3 on Friday, Nikola Jokic walked over to the Nuggets bench and pulled his soaked jersey to his face.
He was frustrated, his team dropping 14 points heading into the fourth quarter with seemingly no response for Phoenix’s dynamic backcourt. But there was also guilt, after he had just gone 4 for 11 in the quarter, and his team were outscored by 10.
Whether Jokic’s guilt had any merit (it didn’t, of course) was irrelevant. The fact that he feels responsible, one night he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain as the only three players in NBA playoff history with at least 32 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a match, said everything there is to know about Jokic’s character.
All that matters to him is winning, which is why Denver’s third straight loss to Phoenix was so stinging.
The night he received the MVP trophy, Jokic performed with the kind of effort that leaves an imprint on a team’s culture. He competed because that’s what he’s wired for. That’s why he wanted to play all 72 games of the regular season. The idea of ââhealthy rest was not working.
âIt follows the presentation of the MVP award by featuring an MVP performance,â said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “It’s just too bad it was wasted.”
In the post-game locker room, after the Nuggets fell 3-0 to the brink of elimination, Jokic apologized to his team.
âI said to the guys, ‘This was my bad, I really needed to be better,’â Jokic said. When he relayed this message to reporters, he said it with the severity of a heart attack.
If it wasn’t so genuine, it would have been laughable.
âI did my best, for real,â he said. “I just didn’t want to lose.”
Jokic lamented the lack of some rabbits near the edge and got frustrated after shooting 13 of 29, including 1 of 6 at 3 points. This, despite having rolled his ankle in the second quarter, was described as mentally and physically exhausted by his head coach earlier in the week and had no idea what kind of help he would get. .
It turned out, not much.
Only reservists Monte Morris (21 points) and Will Barton (14) played with proportionate urgency and confidence. Michael Porter Jr.’s 15 points on 5 of 13 shots seemed like another win for the Suns given his power.
Down 99-83 with 6:40 left in the game, Jokic had one of the most ridiculous offensive rebounds of his career against four Suns players. Jokic whipped the ball from the back panel with his right hand, put the fingertips of his left hand on the ricochet, circled it and knocked it down three more times before throwing a blind pass to Barton for a dunk.
The game was probably over. It was a meaningless streak in terms of the end result, and the odds of him getting the loose board were probably the same as Denver’s odds of winning that second-round playoff series. Still, it was emblematic of the effort he put in with his beleaguered team trailing towards the end of his season.
Thirty seconds after trapping the offensive rebound, he inflicted a technical foul for barking at the officials. The Nuggets were down 14 at this point, with their hopes of a comeback quickly fading. But their leader had not conceded.
âYou can’t buy heart,â Morris said of Jokic. “You can’t teach tenacityâ¦ you just have to have it in you, and he definitely has it.”
That’s why, according to Morris and Malone, the Nuggets aren’t ready to switch until Game 4. A comeback, while technically possible, isn’t on anyone’s mind. What matters before Sunday is the competition, and no one does it better than Jokic.
“I know Nikola, I love Nikola, I know for the fourth game he will be with me and we will try to do everything we can to extend this series,” said Malone.