Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ model of consistency, is Denver’s best hope vs. Golden State

Two hours before every game, without fail for the past seven years, you can find Nikola Jokic working his elbow jumper or perfecting his soft baseline touch.

Ever since he arrived on the NBA scene for the 2015-16 season, Jokic’s pre-game shooting routine hasn’t changed. He assumes his shooting time as arena workers shuffle around the court and teammates slowly filter into the locker room.

It’s almost always quiet, bereft of the commotion from autograph seekers, and Jokic can work in peace. On occasion, Felipe Eichenberger, Denver’s strength coach and one of Jokic’s best friends, will queue up a playlist featuring Balkan hits. Other than that, it’s business as usual.

What’s unusual about Jokic’s shooting window is that it’s a time slot typically reserved for fringe rotation players or guys signed on two-way contracts. But because it was the shooting window Jokic was assigned when he got to Denver as an unheralded prospect, and because he’s found success with it, the reigning MVP never found a reason to change.

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Seven seasons later, as the Nuggets prepare for their fourth straight postseason and Jokic stampedes towards a second consecutive MVP award, the reason 6th-seeded Denver has a reasonable chance at upsetting No. 3 Golden State is because of the Nuggets’ transcendent center.

When the Nuggets knocked off Portland a year ago in the first round, at least Jokic had Michael Porter Jr. with him. In this series, it’s unclear who Jokic’s primary sidekick will be. Unlikely to have the help of either Jamal Murray or Porter in the first round, Denver’s playoff fate, once again, rests on the rosy, well-conditioned shoulders of Jokic.

“That’s the last guy I’m worried about,” said veteran DeMarcus Cousins, Jokic’s backup. “He’s probably one of the most consistent superstars I’ve ever been around. The way that guy prepares and works, I know for a fact he’ll be ready.”

That reliability is what gives Nuggets coach Michael Malone confidence.

Malone’s biggest question mark heading into Saturday’s Game 1 has nothing to do with Jokic, who is bound to face an array of defensive puzzles from Warriors big men Draymond Green and Kevon Looney. In four games against the Warriors this season, Jokic averaged 28 points, 15.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists, asserting and imposing himself against Golden State’s smaller frontline.

Instead, Malone wonders which players will show up alongside him in San Francisco.

“We know we have a great player that we play through and is the hub of everything that we do,” Malone said. “I guess the biggest question I have is, I’m curious to see what other guys step up because he’s gonna require and receive so much attention.

“Monte Morris in our four head-to-head matchups played great against them,” Malone added. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re getting everyone else pulling in the right direction to help him when they put two or three defenders around him, but it’s very comforting knowing that you have a back-to-back MVP, who’s able to go out there and carry a team every single night.”

Jokic’s work ethic, not to mention his adherence to routine, has become legendary around Ball Arena.

Game days begin with a good breakfast — his favorite meal of the day — occasionally followed by a morning walk-through. Regardless, Jokic always arrives at the arena by late afternoon. After a stretch, Jokic goes into his 15-minute shooting routine before heading back to the locker room to decompress before tip-off.

His historic season — the first 2,000-point, 1,000-rebound, 500-assist campaign in NBA history — speaks for itself.

Jokic’s postgame routine, coinciding with the Nuggets’ playoff streak, hasn’t changed in four years, according to Eichenberger. The only variable depends on Jokic’s workload on a given night. An overtime game won’t yield the same full-body postgame workout as one in which the Nuggets win by 20.

“We’re not getting him stronger with that lift, but we’re keeping him durable,” Eichenberger said.

On some nights, Jokic will tell Eichenberger he doesn’t have it. On those nights, there’s some compromise with the workout but never a failure to show up.

“It’s not like I’m gonna give him the day off,” Eichenberger said.

There’s a strict regimen of cold tub, more icing, a peanut butter protein shake and a specific stretching routine before Jokic dutifully speaks to the media postgame. There’s more maintenance and more lifting on off-days, but those have become more “efficient,” Eichenberger said, so Jokic has more time to spend with his newborn daughter.

AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets passes the ball to the referee during the first quarter against the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

His routine has not only become a model for younger players like Bones Hyland, it’s also made him one of the most dependable playoff performers in the league.

Of Jokic’s seven prior playoff series, the “worst” one came against the Lakers in the “Bubble” when the two teams met in the Conference Finals. Los Angeles’ size gave Jokic trouble, though he still averaged 21.8 points on 54% shooting, with 7.2 rebounds and five assists per game. The Warriors don’t have nearly the bulk of that Lakers team, meaning there may be no more valuable territory this series than inside the paint.

What they do have is Green, who, when healthy, is the roving anchor of the No. 2 defense in the league. Jokic said he expects to see a healthy dose of both Green and Looney, the Warriors’ center who drew the assignment in all four matchups this season.

“Maybe they’re gonna switch,” Jokic said of what he expected from Golden State. And then, owing to his preparation, he settled on a more all-encompassing answer.

“… I expect everything,” he said.

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