Monte Morris knew the assignment.
When he saw the Clippers send a double-team toward Nikola Jokic at the three-point line with the game tied at 127 and six seconds remaining in overtime, he did what the Nuggets didn’t do in their 25-point collapse vs. Los Angeles a little more than a week ago.
He cut through the lane, dragging his defender, Brandon Boston Jr., just a few feet closer to Jokic and, more importantly, a few feet further away from Aaron Gordon, who was standing in the left corner. In scouting and preparing for Wednesday’s re-match, the Nuggets hammered the idea of moving without the ball to undermine the double- and triple-teams Jokic had been seeing.
Morris’ movement freed up Jokic to loft a preposterous lob pass cross court to Gordon, who caught the ball in his shooting pocket before the game’s defining moment.
“I’m thinking, ‘It’s about to go in,’” Gordon said after canning the clutch 3-pointer that ultimately gave the Nuggets a dramatic 130-128 win. “I said, ‘I’m about to make this. He’s about to pass it to me, and I’m about to make this.’”
After Gordon’s triple fell, Jokic unleashed a primal scream near midcourt.
“He’s going to give it to you every way,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of Jokic. “It’s so much fun watching him. When he gets excited and he’s banging his chest and he’s screaming. Man, I love that.”
FOR. THE. WIN. pic.twitter.com/UPyoBfPqbK
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) January 20, 2022
Jokic had his chance to win the game in regulation. He whiffed on a would-be game-winner from the baseline. Jokic said that if the Clippers had used only single coverage, he would’ve shot again in overtime. But the double team forced Jokic’s hand, perhaps making it easier for the most unselfish basketball player in the league.
As Malone said, “Aaron wasn’t scared.”
While Gordon’s 3-pointer nearly sealed the game (Davon Reed inexplicably rushed the court and drew a technical foul), Jokic’s sublime masterpiece set the stage.
He became the third player in NBA history to finish with at least 49 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists and three steals. The others? Larry Bird and Russell Westbrook. Those other guys didn’t win the Defensive Player of the Game chain, like Jokic did Wednesday night. And unlike prior winners, he didn’t wear the chain to his postgame news conference. It would’ve spoiled his clean look — a black suit and dotted silk shirt.
Jokic scored through double-teams, triple-teams, contact and even with Clipper forward Justise Winslow attached to him. Jokic’s third-quarter outburst was because Winslow had grabbed the MVP’s leg while trying to rebound. It didn’t matter. Jokic scored anyway.
“That’s what MVPs do,” said Morris, who finished with 19 points, nine assists and a career-high nine rebounds that helped ease Jokic’s burden.
But Jokic admitted something he’s rarely admitted in the past. He almost always lets the game dictate his approach, but his team’s energy to start the second half was disconcerting.
After a relatively quiet first half, Jokic unleashed his entire bag of tricks in the second half and overtime session. In the second half, he had 26 points on 7-of-10 shooting along with 10 makes from the free-throw line. In overtime, he scored 11 more, with three more makes from the free-throw line.
His explanation offered insight into his motivation.
“Maybe I was just mad,” he said. “Maybe mad at myself, maybe mad at the guys that we just don’t play the right way. I just said, ‘At least, I’m just gonna try to score a little bit before they blow us out.’ Maybe I was selfish in that moment.”
After his monstrous night, which included tossing the game-winning assist, Jokic had the temerity to suggest he was selfish in the second half.
Such is the most unique superstar in the NBA. One game after Gordon unleashed a colorful rant questioning Jokic’s whistle, the reigning MVP went to the line 16 times. Malone suggested the moon was right.
Gordon couldn’t rationalize why nights like Wednesday’s were so few and far between.
“I don’t know if the refs be feeling bad for the defense sometimes or something like that,” Gordon said, only half-kidding.
But maybe Wednesday’s national TV performance was a touchstone for Jokic this season. It was impossible to ignore his overwhelming dominance against a team from a bigger market.
“I feel like we should have more TV games with a guy putting up these type of numbers,” Morris said. “The world needs to see that.”
For a night, the world did. The Joker held the game in the palm of his hand.