Denver Nuggets star center and reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic already joined Wilt Chamberlain in an elite group earlier this season. He did it again on Sunday night against the New Orleans Pelicans, sending a loud and clear message to Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the process.
Jokic’s brilliance has been there for all to see throughout the 2021-22 season. He’s carried a depleted Nuggets team to this point. But for all The Joker’s excellence, Embiid and Antetokounmpo continue to garner plenty of attention in MVP conversations.
The Serbian big man showed Sunday that he is the favorite for the award with just over a month to play. Can he fight off media narratives and keep racking up W’s for the Nuggets?
Nikola Jokic made history with his 40-point triple-double on Sunday
Through the first three quarters of Sunday’s game against the Pelicans, Jokic had a ho-hum 16 points. He finished with 46 on the night in one of the best performances of the season.
The best second-round pick in NBA history scored 30 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, almost single-handedly powering the Nuggets to a win with a monstrous triple-double (46 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists) that included three steals and four blocks. He did so incredibly efficiently.
Jokic shot 16-of-22 from the field. According to StatMuse, he joined Chamberlian as the only two players in NBA history to record a 45-point triple-double on at least 70% shooting. The Joker also became the first player with a 40-point triple-double and four blocks since LeBron James achieved the feat in 2010, per ESPN.
Although the numbers are impressive enough, the manner in which Jokic got his buckets down the stretch was all the more remarkable. Jokic established himself in the paint and slipped screens for easy mid-range jumpers. The degree of difficulty increased as the game went on, as did the clutch factor.
Denver trailed by six with just under two minutes to play in the fourth when Jokic created a steal and scored on a contested layup in transition. The Nuggets then faced a four-point deficit with about a minute left when the four-time All-Star rotated for a mammoth block on the weak side. Following a pair of key free throws, a dunk, and some Pels misses, Jokic got to the line in the final seconds and sunk two more from the charity stripe to send the game to overtime.
Jokic ratcheted things up in OT. He went a perfect 3-of-3 from the field, spinning off doubles on the low block and, on one occasion, essentially played hot potato with Nuggets point guard Monte Morris on a post entry before flashing to the three-point line for a late-clock triple that ultimately served as a dagger.
The all-around greatness shone through, and the team win is undoubtedly most important. However, Jokic made an NBA MVP statement just when it looked like the race had gotten tighter.
Jokic is the NBA MVP front-runner once again
Nikola Jokic probably deserved the title of NBA MVP front-runner even before yesterday’s dazzling display. However, such an emphatic game absolutely vaults him to a separate tier.
Jokic is now averaging 25.8 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 8.0 assists on a career-high 65.5% true shooting, the best mark among all players averaging at least 1.0 three-point attempts. Those numbers are elite enough. However, the advanced metrics are even better.
The Nuggets star retook the lead in player efficiency rating (PER) from Giannis Antetokounmpo. His 32.3 PER is currently the highest in NBA history. Jokic’s 13.89 box plus-minus mark is also the highest in league history. He leads the Association in win shares (11.7) and value over replacement player (7.6).
Even still, none of those metrics speak to Jokic’s true impact. The on-off splits do, though.
Denver outscores opponents by a whopping 9.2 points per 100 possessions with Joker on the court. But the Nuggets get outscored by 7.2 points per 100 possessions when he sits. That’s an incomprehensible +16.4 margin.
Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid also boast strong differentials in this category. Giannis has a +11.2 on-off mark, with Embiid at +11.5 on the season. But those numbers pale in comparison to Jokic, who has anchored Denver without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
Speaking of which …
Are the Nuggets dark-horse contenders to reach the Finals?
For months, Nikola Jokic has scratched and clawed to keep the Nuggets competitive. Now, there’s reason to believe Denver is one of the scariest contenders in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets are the No. 6 seed in the West, just one game behind the No. 5-seeded Dallas Mavericks and 2.5 games behind the No. 4-seeded Utah Jazz. They have won eight of their last nine games. More importantly, they could get a major lift from their returning stars by the end of the season.
Recent reports indicated that Murray and MPJ could be back on the floor before the playoffs. While it’s foolish to suggest either will resemble their fully healthy selves, their mere presence alone could alleviate some of the pressure on Jokic and make the Nuggets a deeper, more well-rounded group.
Remember: Denver has won a playoff series in each of the past two seasons. It has the experience to make a deep run. With Jokic once again playing at an NBA MVP level and Murray and MPJ possibly gearing up for a return, the Nuggets could pull off a shocker out West.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.