DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic is anything but flashy and never seems to be in a hurry to get where he is going.
After leading the Denver Nuggets to a series-clinching shellacking of the Phoenix Suns, Jokic planned to unwind this weekend by watching his beloved horses race in Europe and getting in some much-needed daddy-daughter time in the pool with 20-month-old Ognjena.
Easygoing — just like his game.
With Jokic’s methodical play and folksy personality leading the way, the Nuggets have overpowered Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker en route to the Western Conference finals against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The opener is Tuesday night in Denver.
While the Nuggets are one of six NBA teams never to reach the Finals, this is the first time they’ve been the top-seeded team in the West, and their .851 homecourt winning percentage is the best in the league.
Jokic may not have captured a third consecutive regular season MVP award, this year that trophy went to Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. But center from Serbia doesn’t seem to mind.
All that interests him — besides family and his prized horses — is an NBA title. Against Phoenix, Jokic averaged a triple-double — 34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, 10.3 assists — over the six games. He also shot nearly 60% from the floor.
“Jokic is an all-time great,” Durant marveled, chiding anyone surprised by Jokic’s night-in and night-out effectiveness. “Going to go down as one of the all-time great centers to ever touch a basketball.”
With Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back from injuries, Jokic wasn’t supposed to carry as much of the load this season but he still put up stellar numbers in guiding the Nuggets to the best record in the West.
His 29 triple-doubles in the regular season were by far the most in the league, more than double the 14 recorded by Sacramento Kings power forward Domantas Sabonis. The Nuggets were 27-2 in those games.
The 6-foot-11, 285-pound Jokic does things at his tempo — using some of the 24-second clock to lumber down the court, more to post up, leaning this way, then that, backing in, spinning or pivoting and the rest to score or deliver a did-he-really-just-do-that? pass.
He’s also made big strides in a category that’s not on the stat sheet — leadership.
“Not only finding his voice but being comfortable with his voice,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “All season long there have been so many different examples … whether it’s in a timeout huddle, in the locker room, at practice, before a game in Houston when he gathered the troops together because we knew he didn’t like the way they were warming up.
“He’s had to do a little less this year” on the court, Malone said, “because we’re healthy.”
On deck, the Lakers.
It’s a team that beat Denver in five games in its last visit to the West finals, the 2020 playoffs held inside the NBA bubble.
“It’s a great challenge, of course,” Jokic said. “You need to play your game, trust your game, don’t let anything disturb you.”
Despite his stellar season, Jokic came up short in the voting to become fourth ever back-to-back-to-back MVP and joining Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird.
One thing Jokic doesn’t have in common with that trio is a championship ring.
But he does have game — and in the NBA, game recognizes game no matter what it looks like. Jokic has reached 300 points, 100 rebounds and 100 assists in a postseason for the third time in his career. No other Nuggets player has accomplished the feat, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Jokic doesn’t have an Adonis body like so many NBA players. He doesn’t jump out of the gym or put on a show like several of his fellow All-Stars. He just consistently makes jaw-dropping passes and sweet shots from anywhere on the court, sometimes firing passes with laser-like precision from one end to the other.
“Totally unselfish,” Suns coach Monty Williams marveled. “Just cares about winning.”
Jokic has long joked that he’s a point guard trapped in a center’s body.
Asked about that, Durant, the 2014 MVP, said: “I wouldn’t say a point, well, yeah, I guess. … There’s no limit or ceiling that you can put on him. You can’t just call him a great passer or a great big man.
“He’s just a great basketball player.”