Playoffs

Nikola Jokić, now a three-time MVP, is an all-time great facing his greatest challenge yet

Nikola Jokić, now a three-time MVP, is an all-time great facing his greatest challenge yet

Nikola Jokić is already in a special room, but he enters even more exclusive territory by winning his third NBA Most Valuable Player award — and, thus, creates more responsibility and pressure in this current struggle his Denver Nuggets find themselves in.

Since the media began voting in 1980-81, there’s a handful who’ve won at least three: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Overall, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has won six, Bill Russell and Jordan have five, Wilt Chamberlain and James have four, and Moses Malone, Johnson and Bird have three.

Jokić shrugs at all of the hoopla, preferring to slink away to his native land during the offseason and pretend none of this matters to him. But there’s no way someone this great has gotten this way by accident, or without being as driven as the men on the very short list of greatest players of all time.

He’s not quite yet at the stage of receiving an MVP award and looking miserable doing it, like Dirk Nowitzki was in 2007 when his Dallas Mavericks were eliminated by the Golden State Warriors in the first round in the rare 1-8 upset, but Jokić and the Nuggets are halfway there.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have Jokić on the ropes, as they’ve been built to beat the Nuggets and to wear down Jokić, who has had the two worst playoff games of his career — or at the least, since becoming that dude.

Nikola Jokić enters exclusive territory with his third MVP award. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

But make no mistake here, Jokić is still worthy of the award he’s receiving and just as dangerous entering Friday night’s Game 3 as he was at the start of the series. He hasn’t put up MVP numbers in the first two games of this series, as the Timberwolves have swarmed him and forced him to be an uncharacteristically sloppy version of himself, with turnovers and indecision as the main culprits.

The temptation is to say someone else is more deserving of the award. The temptation is to say Jokić is already one of two MVP winners (Magic being the other in the 1989 Finals) in the media voting era who’s been swept out of the playoffs in the same season, as was the case for Jokić in 2021, his first MVP campaign.

That temptation shouldn’t be fed this week. Jokić is facing, perhaps, the greatest challenge of his career to date. Even being swept in the conference semis by Phoenix in 2021, the Nuggets were without Jamal Murray. In 2022, when the Nuggets were beaten by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in five games in Round 1, they were without both Murray and Michael Porter Jr. due to injuries.

Unlike the other three-time winners of this award, Jokić hasn’t played with an All-Star teammate — Murray would probably qualify as the closest, but he hasn’t played close to that level in this series because of his calf injury and the hellacious Timberwolves defense.

It’s not an impossible task for Jokić, it is an opportunity.

On this voter’s ballot, three of the four players behind Jokić are still alive in these playoffs and another candidate is making a case to be on next year’s ballot, Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards.

In order, the ballot goes: Jokić, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Dončić, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum.

Of the five, Antetokounmpo is a former MVP and a champion, with the rest chasing everything Jokić has, from the Michael Jordan Trophy as MVP to the Larry O’Brien Trophy to the Bill Russell Finals MVP that Jokić currently holds.

The MVP award wasn’t always synonymous with team success, but this is becoming a weird streak. Stephen Curry is the last award winner to reach the NBA Finals (2016, the only time the winner was voted unanimously) that same year and the last MVP to be part of a title team (2015). Jokić was expected to at least bring that pageantry back to the award, but it’s not feeling very likely.

In the three years Bird won MVP, three consecutive years (1984-86), the Celtics were in the Finals every year and they won twice. Magic’s Lakers made it to the Finals in two of those years, winning once, and the Lakers were unceremoniously knocked out in the second round by the upstart Suns during his last MVP run, in 1990.

The only time Jordan’s Bulls didn’t win a title during his MVP years was his first one, in 1988, when he also was named Defensive Player of the Year. James and the Miami Heat won championships in 2012 and 2013, the last two times he’s won the award.

Jokić doesn’t want to be the three-time winner who has just one playoff series win in those MVP years. He’s at the peak of his powers, as evidenced by leading the league in win shares per 48 minutes, a great statistical indicator of who winds up winning the award in that year.

But in going against Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Naz Reid, he’s facing opponents who seem more motivated than him and his team, and he’s going to have to conjure up a counter to what the Timberwolves are doing.

The reason he got this vote was simple: He had the greatest night-to-night affect on winning than any other player. Perhaps last year’s winner, Joel Embiid, would’ve had something to say had he not gotten hurt this year. And Antetokounmpo’s force was loud and noticeable, until his leg injury sat him down this postseason.

The award, and history, comes with unfair responsibility. Even if the Timberwolves are the better team, which they seem like today, it doesn’t mean the champions cannot muster up something to turn this series around.

It’s cliché, but that “heart of a champion” stuff has to start with Jokić. He rightfully received the majority of the credit for the Nuggets’ dominant playoff run last season, but this team is the first 50-win opponent they’ve faced in the postseason since 2022.

Being the MVP means sometimes you have to overcome insurmountable odds, or at the very least, go out on your shield and drag some unwilling teammates with you. Jokić and the Nuggets succumbed too early in Game 2 to Minnesota, conceding before halftime.

If the rest of this series follows suit, plenty of blame will come Jokić’s way. It happened to all the other greats before him, whether they already had jewelry or not.

We won’t find out what Jokić is made of, that’s long been determined. What we will find out is just how bad he wants it, this time, right now, against a worthy opponent.

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