By Arnie Stapleton, The Associated Press
There are no more holes in Nikola Jokić’s impressive resume.
Denver’s do-it-all center commandeered these playoffs, smashing a 56-year-old playoff record with 10 triple-doubles, and he completed a transcendent two-month stretch by leading the Nuggets past the Miami Heat 94-89 on Monday night in a hard-fought Game 5 to secure the old ABA franchise’s first basketball championship.
Jokić had 28 points, 16 rebounds and four assists in the clincher that came 55 years, seven months and 28 days after the Nuggets won the first game in franchise history. Denver struggled shooting the ball against the pesky Heat, missing 23 of 28 shots from 3-point range and 10 of 23 free throws.
“It was ugly and we couldn’t make shots. But at the end we figured it out,” Jokić said after hugging all of his jubilant teammates and coaches and almost all of his dejected opponents, chasing down some of them as they walked off the court. “I am just happy we won the game.”
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The stoic Jokić finally let loose when he greeted his two older brothers, Nemanja and Strahinja — who tossed Nuggets coach Michael Malone in the air — and his wife and toddler daughter in the stands.
Jokić acquiesced the Michael Jordan Trophy to Joel Embiid as the league’s MVP this season despite being even more dominant than he was in the two previous seasons when he easily won the award.
He instead walked away with the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy after becoming the first player in league history to lead the playoffs in total points (600), rebounds (269) and assists (190).
Jokić smiled sheepishly as he held the MVP trophy in his right hand and daughter Ognjena in the other as confetti danced around him.
As the 41st pick in the 2014 draft — which occured during a Taco Bell commercial, no less — Jokić is the lowest-drafted player to be chosen finals MVP.
“I think it’s a great journey. Like you said, 41st pick,” Jokić said, “but that doesn’t matter. When you’re here, you’re a player. The (Heat) have a couple guys that weren’t even drafted.”
Throughout the playoffs, Jokić dominated opponents with his array of finger-roll finishes, pull-up jump shots, long-range buzzer-beaters, amazing assists and rebounding prowess at both baskets.
When he wasn’t on the court, he was his teammates’ biggest supporter, jumping in jubilation as they kept the Heat at bay when he was in foul trouble in Game 4. On Monday night, he let his emotions show during a third-quarter timeout when he got on his teammates for settling for 3s insead of layups, lapses that led to a 64-60 deficit.
“I didn’t slam the chairs, but I like how you make it bigger,” Jokić said. “Yes, I yell at them because we were just shooting 3s, and I think it was like 4-on-3, we could just get an easy layup or score the ball. In that situation, it means a lot. … Especially it’s a low-scoring game, we didn’t make shots, they didn’t make shots.
“In that situation, emotions, yes, I yell at them, but I think they’re used to it,” Jokić added. “Sometimes I yell at them, sometimes I cheer them, but that’s part of the family, part of the team.”
Jokić teamed with Jamal Murray to set the new pick-and-roll standard this season, Murray’s first since tearing an ACL in 2021. They produced the first dual triple-double in NBA history in Game 3 and accomplished something Karl Malone and John Stockton never did in hoisting the gold ball in the finals.
Jokić and Murray became the first duo in league history to each average at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists in a single postseason.
Jokić has been recognized in basketball circles as the game’s most versatile center for several years, but it took Denver’s championship run to cement his standing as basketball royalty — and introduce himself to much of the nation.
Malone played the disrespect card earlier in the playoffs, while understanding his team needed to do more than dominate the regular season. Denver was on a mission, led by Jokić.
Denver’s big man always shrugged his broad shoulders, even less bothered by criticism than the lack of laurels. So doggedly determined to win a title and with the No. 1 seed in the West secured, Jokić sat out several games toward the end of the regular season to get his body right for the playoffs.
That all but sealed his exclusion to the club of players who’ve won three consecutive NBA MVP awards, one that includes just Russell, Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain — who set the standard with seven triple-doubles in 1967, a record that stood until this year.
But sitting out to rehab his sore calf apparently did wonders for Jokić and the Nuggets in the playoffs.
Asked how he felt to finally be a champion, Jokić said, “It’s good. It’s good. The job is done. We can go home now.”
Not until after he leads the Nuggets’ championship parade on Thursday, though.