Oh YoungmisukESPN staff writer7 minutes of reading
In addition to getting the championship he’s been chasing, Jokic was named the NBA Finals MVP after the Denver Nuggets defeated the Miami Heat 94-89 in Game 5 at Ball Arena.
Jokic shut out Miami with 28 points, 16 rebounds and 4 assists to help the Nuggets win the franchise’s first NBA title. Like every other opponent the Nuggets faced this postseason, the Heat had very few answers for Jokic.
Asked how it feels to be an NBA champion, Jokic told ESPN’s Lisa Salters on the court, “It’s good. It’s good. The job’s done and we can go home now.”
Before this championship run, Jokic, 28, was already considered one of the best players in the league. But now that he’s won a championship and a Finals MVP, one NBA Hall of Famer says it catapults the Serbian big man into another stratosphere.
“It puts him in the legendary category for what he’s done statistically in the Finals,” former Detroit Pistons great Isiah Thomas told ESPN. “I don’t know if anybody has ever had a statistical run in the NBA Finals as a center that he had in those categories.”
After a few years of much debate over who the regular-season MVP should have been between Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thomas said it’s hard to argue who is the best player in the world.
“Hey, right now when you’re the champion and your team [wins the title]you’re the best player and the best team,” said Thomas, the 1990 Finals MVP. “And it might not be for [the next] five years. But when you talk about like now, the best player now is him. And the best team is the Denver Nuggets.
“When you’re a champion, that’s all that matters. If you can say, ‘I’m the best in the world,’ even if it’s just for a day or even if it’s for a year, what a remarkable moment to have for yourself. And then be branded. And everybody recognizes that. No greater feeling.”
Jokic is the lowest drafted player (41st overall in the second round in 2014) to win the Finals MVP, passing Dennis Johnson, who was drafted 29th overall in 1979, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He also becomes only the third second-round pick to win Finals MVP, joining Willis Reed and Johnson (Moses Malone won the 1983 Finals MVP with the Philadelphia 76ers but was not drafted by an NBA team because he started his career in the ABA with the Utah Stars).
“I think it’s a great journey,” Jokic said of going from a second-round pick to Finals MVP. “Like you said, 41st pick, but that doesn’t matter. When you’re here, you’re one [NBA] player.”
Jokic joins Antetokounmpo, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only foreign-born players to take home the Finals. And he did it by putting together one of the all-time great postseason runs. He averaged a triple-double for most of the postseason until the Finals. He had 10 triple-doubles during that run, with eight in a 12-game span.
Jokic turned in some eye-popping performances, including 53 points and 11 rebounds in Game 4 at Phoenix in the second round and became the first player to have a 30-20-10 triple-double in Finals history with 32 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists in game 3 in Miami.
“Jokic is an all-time great,” Phoenix’s Kevin Durant said after Jokic averaged 34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.3 assists against the Suns. “Will go down as one of the all-time great centers to ever touch a basketball.”
Jokic’s Nuggets eliminated Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards in the first round, Phoenix’s Devin Booker and Durant in the second and swept the Lakers’ LeBron James and Anthony Davis — who beat Jokic and the Nuggets in the 2020 West Finals — in the conference finals before sent Jimmy Butler and the Heat.
“I know how great he is,” James said of Jokic after the Nuggets eliminated the Lakers. “I know how great Jokic is. There are certain guys in this league that play the game a certain way, a certain way that I like to play the game as well, and he’s one of those guys where you’re always off balance when you guard a player like that because of his ability to score, rebound, shoot. He sees plays before they happen.
“There’s not a lot of guys in our league like that. So you already knew you were going against a beast when the series started, and not just about his play. Everyone gets torn up about his stats, but I don’t think many people talk about [the cerebral part] of his game. Maybe it’s not talked about because many people don’t understand it, but I do. He is special.”
As James alluded to, Jokic found himself exposed to the debate over whether to win a third straight MVP in 2022-23, which would have put him in rare company with only Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
This season, Jokic seemed to tire of the speculation surrounding the MVP race between himself, Embiid and Antetokounmpo. After winning the previous two MVPs back-to-back, Jokic received criticism from those who said he was not the best player in the NBA.
It got higher as opponents pointed to accusations of stat-padding while Jokic collected 29 triple-doubles in the regular season. Some suggested that Jokic is this generation’s Steve Nash, a generational team-first passer who had flashy stats but wasn’t the best player of his era, nor capable of winning a championship.
Jokic often shut down MVP questions by saying he didn’t care about winning the award and just wanted to lead his team to a championship. But after Jokic posted his 100th career triple-double at the Houston Rockets on Feb. 28, the center admitted he had heard some of the criticism about why he didn’t deserve to win MVP again.
“When you stat-upholster it’s easy, you know,” Jokic said when asked about the triple milestone.
When asked if he’s heard being called a stat-padder, Jokic snapped, “Yeah, sure. It’s true.”
Race itself was brought up by some as an excuse for why Embiid wasn’t chosen as MVP before he won it for the first time this season. (Jokic finished second in this year’s voting.)
Nuggets head coach Michael Malone could not stand idly by and not defend Jokic.
After Jokic led the Nuggets to their celebration over the Lakers, Malone was asked what Jokic showed so far in his tear through the postseason.
“I think he’s showing other people nationally that he’s real,” Malone said last month. “Like what he’s doing is real. The MVPs are real. The triple-doubles are real. The silly narratives this year are just silly and kind of ignorant. I think Nikola’s gone through three rounds now where he’s averaging has a triple-double in the playoffs.
“Have you seen any stat padding out there? I’m serious. Enough of the stupidity. The guy’s a great player. Give him his goddamn respect. Stop cutting him in the knees.”
For Jokic, the Finals MVP is just the latest hardware he’s earned for his exuberant play. But it happens to come with winning the hardware he really wanted — the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Jokic has always made it clear that he is about the team and winning above any individual accolade.
Teammate Jamal Murray believes Jokic will only get better. Opposing defenses tried to throw everything at Jokic with little success.
“He’s been doing it for so long at every level,” Murray said. “He won his first MVP and his numbers were better [during] the other MVP. And his numbers are better now.
“I think there’s more to come, actually from Jok. We haven’t seen a side of Jok that we’re going to see where he can be pure dominance all the way, all game, even more than he has been.”
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon contributed to this report.