The Denver Nuggets center was temporarily dazed by the foul with 7 minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, but as the San Antonio Spurs discovered the hard way, it’s going to take a lot more than that to slow him down.
For the second time in three playoff games, Jokic dominated his opponent offensively, pouring in 37 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists to lead Denver to a 121-113 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series.
Like the Spurs in the first round, Portland learned that Jokic is adjusting to whatever defenses try to take away from the triple-double threat. Take away his passing, and he will score. Double-team him, and he will find the open man.
“Everything,” Denver forward Paul Millsap said when asked what defenses are trying to do that isn’t working against Jokic. “… He sees how people are playing and guarding him. He makes the right play every time. … He doesn’t force anything.”
“He’s like a quarterback out there,” Millsap added. “I consider him like a Tom Brady. He’s always going to pick you apart and make the right reads. Commend him for doing that at this stage in his career. It’s unbelievable.”
The New England Patriots’ decorated quarterback may not be the best guy to liken Jokic to in these parts around the Rocky Mountains. But in his first postseason, Jokic is dissecting defenses as if he were Peyton Manning scanning the field at the line of scrimmage.
In Game 1 of the first round, San Antonio tried doubling Jokic and held him to a playoff-low 10 points. But Jokic also had 14 rebounds and 14 assists to become just the fourth player in NBA history to have a triple-double in his first playoff game.
In Game 6 at San Antonio, Jokic had a career-high 43 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists. He followed that up in Game 7 with 21 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists — the first triple-double in a Game 7 since LeBron James‘ in the 2016 NBA Finals.
Against Portland, the Nuggets made 50.6 percent from the field, including 12-of-29 from 3-point range as Jamal Murray added 23 points and eight assists. Millsap scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half, but Jokic couldn’t be stopped inside the entire game.
“I think I can read everything,” Jokic said. “So I just need to know what they’re going to do. I think San Antonio was playing one way, Portland is playing one way, it’s completely different games. But I think I am capable of reading those defenses.”
Enes Kanter, who had 26 points despite playing with an injured left shoulder, was no match defensively for Jokic. The All-Star center is the first Nuggets player with multiple 30-point games in a single postseason since Carmelo Anthony in 2010, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Jokic made 11 of 18 shots, and when Portland tried to go under on pick-and-rolls, the Denver big man sank 3 of 5 from behind the arc. Fouling him didn’t work, as Jokic made 12 of 12 from the line while Maurice Harkless fouled out trying to stop Jokic in the paint.
“He’s a great player,” Lillard said. “It’s got to be a team effort. You’re not going to completely take him out. But you got to make things difficult for him. We got to make him see bodies, we got to be physical. We got to be ready to help big on the post and get back to our man, but we also got to make sure that when he’s putting up shots that we are keeping him off the glass. Because he is one of the best at shooting the ball and following his shot, and the second attempt is usually easier than the first one is for him.”
The Blazers came into this game saying they wanted to put some pressure on Jokic and take away his passes, holding him to his lowest assist output in a game so far this postseason. But Jokic found other ways to hurt the Blazers with his hands, collecting three steals and two blocks on defense.
Murray and Jokic have been finding different ways to hurt defenses with their pick-and-rolls, whether it is Murray or Jokic acting as the passer and the other taking on the scoring role. Murray assisted on seven of Jokic’s made field goals on Monday.
When asked what advantage the Nuggets felt they had going into the series at the team’s morning shootaround, Murray didn’t need to think long and hard about one strength.
“I think Joker has got a matchup,” Murray said. “I mean he always has a matchup.”