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Nikola Jokic must keep playing like Nikola Jokic because no one else can

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Plus, is Brad Stevens a witch?

Under the bright lights at Madison Square Garden this week, Nikola Jokic put on a show the only way he knows how. With the Nuggets trailing the Knicks, Jokic collected a rebound in the first quarter, courtesy of Paul Millsap sliding down low and blocking Kristaps Porzingis at the rim. With the ball secured, Jokic’s eyes immediately turned up the court. Gary Harris, a favorite long-range outlet pass recipient, was leading the break, but had yet to cross the halfcourt line.

In the seconds it took the gangly, 6’10 center to dribble up the court, swiveling his head side to side three times like a creepy new-age CCTV camera as he advanced, teammates Wilson Chandler and Jamal Murray filled the lanes. The 22-year-old from Serbia considered pulling up at the three-point line, where he is shooting 46.2 percent this season. Instead of letting it fly, or driving at Knicks center Enes Kanter — who would be the subject of Harden-esque defensive lowlight reels if anyone cared enough — in the paint, Jokic pump-faked, evaded Porzingis’s attempt to block him from behind, and kicked it to a trailing Millsap for a wide-open three, who drilled it.

Jokic is a generational passer, unlike any of his contemporaries. Unlike Ben Simmons, an opponent can’t stymie his abilities by stepping a few feet away and daring him to shoot. Unlike Rajon Rondo, Jokic is not obsessed with dominating the ball at every juncture. Much like Chris Paul, there are very few angles that he doesn’t see and utilize. But when the game dwindles down to a few final critical possessions, even Paul tends to trust own scoring ability more than his teammates.

With the ball in his hands, Jokic is a one-man supercomputer, surveying the court, spitting out probabilities, with no apparent bias towards his own abilities or stat line.

Against the Kings in the Nuggets’ second game of the season, he went scoreless but gathered nine rebounds and doled out seven assists. Against the Raptors on Wednesday, he was two points shy of a triple-double. Jokic’s style is quintessentially European, prioritizing team concepts over individual stardom. He is easy, under North American tenets, to criticize when his pass goes haywire or a teammate rewards his generosity with a missed shot. But he is impossible to categorize, and even harder to guard. In his third NBA season, he is trying, as Denver continues to rebound from a horrendous offensive start, to redefine what it means to be star.

“I cannot change myself,” Jokic says. “That’s how I think. That’s how I like basketball.”

Can you blame him? As a scorer, Jokic is formidable. As a passer, he is deadly. According to Cleaning The Glass, Jokic’s assist-to-usage ratio is 1.23, which puts him in the 98th percentile of big men.

There is no statistic, however, that measures just how accurately he pinpoints those dimes. On a team stacked with shooters curling off screens, there is no reprieve playing against him. Play it straight, and you’re giving up an open shot to one of Barton, Harris, Murray or Millsap. Overplay, and Jokic will find them for a backdoor cut. In the split-second it takes for a defense to hedge and recover, Jokic finds his angle. Switch? He’ll readily give the ball up and let his teammates exploit the mismatch. Don’t bother fronting his target in the post. Like a good quarterback, Jokic will throw the ball where only his guy can catch it.

Jokic gives utility to the kind of off-ball cuts that, on other teams, qualify as literally going through the motions. For him, every movement creates an opportunity.

“He is probably the most talented passing center that the league has seen,” says Richard Jefferson, a 37-year-old veteran who played with LeBron James and Jason Kidd over the years before arriving in Denver just before opening night. “Most of the passing big men would pass out of the post — Arvydas Sabonis, Shaq, Bill Walton, Kareem — or through double teams, whereas he’s a guy who’s leading the break and throwing up lobs.”

At Jokic’s best, his ability to thread the needle creates an air of inevitability that inspires his teammates and demoralizes the opposition. He nonchalantly fires passes from 30 feet — an area where even the most creative big men are relegated to toothless dribble hand-offs — and summons parallel visions of Stephen Curry fearlessly shooting the ball.

On occasion, both miss. But pass-first stars bear the brunt of the criticism when the play fails, because they’re perceived to be entrusting the game to someone else, a decidedly non-alpha move. Jokic felt that heat when the Nuggets stumbled out of the gate this season, as he and Millsap struggled to adjust to each other’s games, and key scorers like Jamal Murray struggled to nail open shots.

Scorers starting the season on a cold streak might hear some boos, but we’re less prone to criticize their game. We’ve seen it before, and we understand it’ll improve. Whenever someone doing something unorthodox struggles, they can hear about their entire approach being the problem.

“To try to fit into our tradition,” says Jefferson, who saw James take similar criticism as a member of the Cavs, “The way we expect superstars play, based off our culture, it’s — I won’t say that it’s wrong — I just think that you can’t try and please everyone.”

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Denver Nuggets
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Jokic’s whip-fast dimes may not make all the highlight reels or even show up in the box score if the ensuing shots are off target. Passing, as we understand it, is a precursor rather than a result. But even the best shooters leave something to fate when they unfurl a jumper.

In the end, we all live and die with percentages. Jokic, dribbling down the court, increases the probability of every possibility.

***

AT CENTER COURT

It has been exceptionally hard to pin down a story of the week, because we have been inundated by so many of them. That, in itself, tells us something.

It helps that the Warriors (though they still lead the league in net rating, and don’t you forget it) have already dropped three games, while the Cavs’ players not named LeBron are floundering. The sense of inevitably around this season is showing cracks, and surprising upstarts and improving contenders are moving in and filling them.

The Magic, led by Aaron Gordon and a pass-happy trove of shooters, are among the leaders in the East. Is Jonathan Simmons the most poised offensive player of all time? Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner are pick-and-roll duo to be reckoned with. The Pistons finally look like the board-crashing, floor-spacing unit they set out to be when they paired Stan Van Gundy and Andre Drummond. Blake Griffin, one-man wrecking ball, has led the Clippers to a hot start in the West. Russell Westbrook’s balancing act in Oklahoma, a salve for basketball purists, has them just behind the Warriors in terms of net rating.

Is Brad Stevens a witch?

All the while, Houston, a team that was considered by many in the offseason to be the only true challenger to the throne, patiently awaits the return of Chris Paul.

The magic, pun totally intended, will eventually come to a halt. They’ll stop shooting 44 percent from three eventually. So will Blake. In Indiana, the best defenses will funnel the ball to Thaddeus Young. And then, the slow grind of maintenance will begin for the teams that can withstand the scouting report.

But right now, the fears of pessimists have been momentarily washed away: The regular season, thus far, has been anything but boring.

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