DENVER – Nikola Jokic claimed he had no strategy in mind to fight Anthony Davis.
But in Tuesday night’s first game, it wasn’t long before the Los Angeles Lakers saw Jokic’s plan. The Denver Nuggets superstar was extremely aggressive and once again faced LeBron James and Davis in the Western Conference Finals, but this time as a two-time MVP at his best.
Jokic hit his third straight triple-double in the third quarter this postseason and finished the game with 34 points, 21 rebounds, 14 assists and two blocks, helping the Nuggets to a 132-126 win at Ball Arena.
“He can do it [look] “It’s simple,” said Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon of Jokic taking on whatever the defense gives him. “[But also] he makes it look wonderful at the same time. It is ridiculous.
Jokic was a force, especially at the glass where he hit six offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone. The Lakers had a total of six rebounds as a team in the quarter. At halftime, Jokic beat the entire Lakers team 16-13.
On offense, he seemed as aggressive as ever, putting the ball on the ground and attacking Davis and every other Lakers defenseman hard and fast. He even got the better of Davis, pivoting left and dunking the Lakers big man at the baseline.
“I thought when he sensed there was a one-on-one cover and looked up and came to the basket, [Jokic used] this unobtrusive athleticism to get to the finish line in traffic. “That was great to see,” said Denver coach Michael Malone.
“He’s going to have to keep doing that at a high level. But his early rebounding, I think there was a point in that game where we were up I think 22-3 in rebounds. So we just did our best.” Wille on the glass.
By the end of the third quarter, Jokic had 31 points, 19 rebounds, and 12 assists, helping Denver to a 21-point lead. He showed the Lakers how dominant he was in the second round when he averaged 34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.3 assists against the Phoenix Suns while averaging a 59.4% shot rate from the field.
“I think the only difference is Bron can jump higher than Jokic,” said Nuggets guard and former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope when asked about the difference between Jokic’s and James’ versatile triple-double games . “That’s about the only difference I can see. I just love playing with Jokic, a willing passer, a dominant big man down there. Just seeing him do what he does gets everyone else going.”
Jokic even sank a 28-foot, 3-point backslide in Davis’ face on the buzzer in the third quarter, earning Davis a smile and a big nuggets-man shrug.
“Oh, sometimes luck is on our side,” said Jokic. “It’s a crazy shot, of course. I’m not working on that, but I’m glad he came in.”
Jokic made 12 of his first 15 shots but his team was just as hot. Denver had a 56% batting average from the field and 12 of 24 from three quarters in the first three quarters.
However, the Lakers stormed back. Coach Darvin Ham put Rui Hachimura on Jokic to give Davis the opportunity to move around the field defensively rather than having to take on the entire Jokic role. After trailing 14 with 6:33 left, the Lakers reduced the gap to three times in the final 2:18.
But Jokic beat Caldwell-Pope (21 points) with 1:53 to go for a driving finger roll. As the Lakers closed on three points, Jamal Murray (31 points) got a steal and Jokic had four free throws to seal the game.
Davis fought Jokic and finished the game with 40 points and 10 rebounds. And James just missed his own triple-double with 26 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists.
According to a study by ESPN Stats & Information, Jokic is the first player in NBA postseason history to have multiple 30-point triple-doubles while making 70% of his shots from the field. And he’s managed to do that in each of his last two games.
Jokic may need to be even better in Game 2 after the Lakers fought back in Game 1.
“I’d much rather clean up after a win in the Western Conference Finals than after a loss,” Malone said. “So we’ll take it, but there’s still work to be done.”