DENVER — Every once in a while, when things look good but feel a little bit off, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone will turn around in the middle of a game and ask a team staffer how many shots Nikola Jokic has taken.
Like everyone on the Nuggets’ staff, Malone has learned to trust Jokic to read the game, what the defense is giving him and when it’s time for him to start attacking. But sometimes it’s still hard to wait.
Jokic was still in complete command of the game with 10 assists in the first half as the Nuggets led by 17, but still — three shots from your two-time MVP in the first half of the first NBA Finals game in team history would test anyone’s fortitude.
“I learned a long time ago, the defense tells you what to do, and Nikola never forces it,” Malone said after the game Thursday. “If they’re going to give him that kind of attention … he’s going to just pick you apart. Now it’s up to the other guys to step in and make shots.”
“That’s the craziest thing about Joker,” Porter told ESPN. “He can have such a big impact and shoot the ball three times. He doesn’t care at all. … He’s just always going to take what the defense gives him.”
This is the choice every team must make when they play the Nuggets, and none of the options are all that appealing.
Either try to slow Jokic down by sending multiple defenders at him, playing zone or assigning a burly, athletic power forward to shadow him everywhere he goes (Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James actually did a reasonable job at this in the Western Conference finals). Or, let Jokic score as many points as he wants but try to stop everyone else (which the Golden State Warriors did well in 2022).
Miami mostly tried the former in this game, using Bam Adebayo, Cody Zeller and zone defense to force Jokic into more of a passing role the first three quarters, when Jokic was perfectly content to pick the zone apart.
“I don’t force it. I never force it, I think,” Jokic said afterwards. “A couple guys had it going, AG was playing really good, and we had advantage there.
“I just take whatever the game gives me.”
Everything would’ve continued this way had the Heat not gone on an 11-0 run to open the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 84-74. That prompted an adjustment from Malone to post up Jokic so he could catch the ball closer to the basket and look to score or continue to draw fouls once Miami was in the penalty.
Jokic responded by scoring 12 points in the fourth on 5-of-7 shooting to close the game out with 27 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds — joining then-New Jersey Nets point guard Jason Kidd as the only players to record a triple-double in their Finals debuts.
It was clinical — the same kind of precision one guy sitting in the crowd Thursday night used to do to NFL defenses when he quarterbacked the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl in the 2015 season.
That would be Peyton Manning, who received a raucous applause from the Ball Arena crowd when he was shown on the JumboTron during the game. As sports royalty goes in Denver, Manning is near the top of the list, along with John Elway, Terrell Davis and Colorado Avalanche stars Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic.
Jokic is quickly joining that list.
“He literally controlled the game,” assistant coach Ognjen Stojakovic told ESPN. “He controlled everything, then he picked out the right moment to score, which for me is really the highest level of basketball.”
About the only thing that seemed to bother Jokic was the wait for the game to start. The nine-day layoff between the Western Conference finals and start of the NBA Finals was interminable.
“To be honest, I couldn’t wait to start just because when the game started it felt abnormal,” Jokic said. “Everything else didn’t feel — felt abnormal, and the whole media day [Wednesday] — I think people are making something bigger than it is.
“When the game started, I felt really comfortable.”