Nikola Jokic on Game 5 slam dunk amid 40-point performance: “I’m a freak of nature”

Nikola Jokic on Game 5 slam dunk amid 40-point performance: “I’m a freak of nature”

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All in a day’s work, Nikola Jokic dodged questions about his aggression against Rudy Gobert, exhibited gentle embarrassment at being called a genius by his coworkers, then referred to himself as a freak of nature with a complete poker face.

That was at the podium. On the court, he passed behind his back to perimeter shooters, behind his back to the baseline dunkers, over the top of five defenders for Hail Mary touchdowns. He shot 8 for 9 against a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, made ambidextrous hook shots and step-back 3s and spinning driving and-ones and thunderous two-handed slams. All in a day’s work.

“There aren’t enough words,” Aaron Gordon said. “He was amazing tonight. That was ridiculous.”

“It felt like he had 50,” Jamal Murray said after Denver’s Game 4 win over the Timberwolves. “Whenever he gets going like that, you kind of let him dictate the way the game’s gonna go.”

The actual total was 40. And 13 assists. It was the 10th time in Jokic’s career that he has scored that many points without a teammate going for 20. In each of the three playoff games when that phenomenon occurred before Tuesday, the Nuggets lost. Jokic wouldn’t let them lose this one.

So he was entitled to at least one cocky postgame quote, even if its true subtext was self-deprecating.

“I had an open lane,” Jokic said of his first-quarter dunk. “And you know, I’m a freak of nature. Why not show my athleticism?”

By Jokic standards, the driving finish was emphatic. Rarely, if ever, does the Serbian center cock the ball back over his head before throwing down a dunk — except when warming up, as teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope pointed out. When Gordon was asked to share which of Jokic’s improbable shots was his personal favorite, the choice was easy. “When he goes through the lane and he tomahawks it,” Gordon said, grinning, “that’s my favorite.”

It was the second game in a row Jokic has manufactured a highlight that way, following his one-handed jam over Anthony Edwards in Minnesota. This one established the volume of Ball Arena and the tone of a fiercely competitive swing game in the series. Denver has now clawed back from down 2-0 to lead 3-2, thanks in large part to Jokic’s scoring mindset.

His post-ups against Gobert were the main event of the highlight reel. Jokic pivoted in both directions to drop Gobert in a blender early. He play-faked at all the right moments and pulled the trigger without a fake precisely when Gobert was on his heels. He ducked underneath the rim for a reverse hook and leaned away from the rim when he needed one more centimeter of space. He used the glass. Or sometimes he didn’t. He customized his release angle based on space. He heightened the parabola of his arc.

For as much artistry as Jokic is said to incorporate to the game of basketball, his shot-making in Game 5 felt more like the work of a mathematician.

“His IQ is off the charts,” coach Michael Malone said. “He probably belongs to Mensa. He probably doesn’t even know what Mensa is. I’ll quiz guys throughout the series, about play calls, about personnel tendencies, about game plan, and Nikola, he is ahead of everybody. He just knows everything.”

Presented with Malone’s IQ compliment and Gordon’s recent anointment of genius status, Jokic placed his head in his hands. “Funny,” he said meekly.

But that’s the juxtaposition that defines Jokic: His puzzle-solving brain is his superpower, yet the only obstacle between him and consistent 15-for-22 games is the “22” part — some mental barricade. Call it shooter’s block. His mind even betrayed him in Game 2 of this series, when he attempted only 13 field goals in 39 minutes of a blowout loss. He was too determined to pass for his own good.

“Sometimes he’s a little too passive,” Gordon said. “So we appreciate it when he shoots more.”

Jokic’s ownership of the Gobert matchup is increasingly apparent. It dates back years, to the 2020 bubble when the Nuggets overcame a 3-1 first-round deficit to Gobert’s Jazz. Now they’re are on the verge of snatching another series from him, and Jokic’s relentless pursuit of a one-on-one bucket is a major reason why.

When Karl-Anthony Towns guards Jokic, Gobert is lurking on the back line, a physical roadblock to supplement any mental ones. But Denver has improved throughout the series at finding ways to switch Towns or the second Minnesota big off of Jokic, then spacing the original defender to the opposite side of the floor. Jokic’s eyes light up.

He’ll never admit that.

“Some of the shots were really tough,” he said of the 8-for-9 clip against Gobert. “Some of the shots were shots I think I can make. He’s a good defender. Always makes you do a little bit more. And sometimes you need to make a tough shot.”

That, Jokic did. Gobert played some of his most impenetrable defense in the post and on the perimeter. It was helpless. And the newly anointed three-time MVP saved his best for last — an off-the-dribble, step-back 3-pointer in Gobert’s face and over his contest at the shot clock buzzer. It landed Jokic at 40, extended the lead to 13 and extinguished Minnesota’s last remaining comeback ambitions.

“When he gets it going,” Murray said, “and he’s throwing up that stupid one-legged, one-armed behind-the-backboard (shot), I’m just going back on defense.”

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