Keeler: Nikola Jokic comes through big for Nuggets, hits winner

Can we look now?

Can we breathe?

“Mike (Conley) had a really open look and the ball went in and out,” a relieved Nikola Jokic told ABC’s Cassidy Hubbarth after the game, clearly as stunned as the rest of us mere mortals after the Nuggets somehow escaped with an 80-78 Game 7 win over Utah on Tuesday night. Had Conley’s three-pointer gone through, the Nuggets’ season is over.

“We didn’t quit. We were down 3-1. I don’t know how many teams down 3-1 that came back. I said (it) before, this is going to be an interesting series.” (Actually, the Nuggets became just the 12th team in NBA history to come back from being down 3-1, compared to 242 who lost.)

Yeah, but it did it have to be that interesting?

“We do not get a Game 7 without Jamal (Murray),” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after his bunch punched their tickets for the Western Conference semifinals for a second straight year. “But quietly, Nikola Jokic has been sensational as well … That’s what we want and need from our best player.”

Tuesday, they needed every wiggle. Every pivot. Every spin. Every awkward dance move from the big guy.

On an evening in which the Nuggets looked tighter offensively than a pair of Quin Snyder’s jeans, the Joker quietly put up one of the bigger double-doubles of his career: 30 points and 14 boards on 23 shots.

And no shot was bigger than the one with 27.8 seconds left on the clock, game tied at 78-all. With Jazz center Rudy Gobert extended in front of him, the Serbian drove, backed down, spun 360 degrees, spun another 360 degrees. He then faded back to the lane while lofting a rainbow with his right hand over all 93 inches of Gobert’s wingspan. A baby hook with enough body English to fill a thesaurus.

“Joker put us on his back,” said Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, who finished with a merely-human 17 points and four assists. “And was big down the stretch.”

It’s OK to praise the comeback, while also acknowledging that it should probably have never gotten to this point in the first place. The Nuggets were deeper, bigger, and had a 3-0 edge against Utah, head-to-head, during the regular season.

The playoffs are as much about mental toughness as physical gifts, and the Nuggets looked lost between the ears until about two-thirds of the way through Game 5, when the grave reality appeared to finally set in.

“We kind of had the open looks,” Jokic said. “We (were) just a little bit, kind of, tight.”

Both teams looked edgy, given the stakes. And leggy. The form on Murray’s jumper is impeccable when he’s right. After a late second-period collision with Joe Ingles, the lift-off, the elevation, didn’t quite look the same coming out of the half.

Yet for all the love — and it’s deserved — for the Blue Arrow’s national coming-out party during this series, we should’ve known that Big Honey would have the last word.  According to ESPN Stats and Info, Jokic is one of only four NBA players this century to put up at least 20 points and 10 boards in every postseason Game 7 in which he’s appeared, which is three.

The other three: Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, and LeBron James.

Pretty hefty cover charge to get into that club, my friend.

“He’s a joke. He does everything,” Murray laughed during the postgame news conference. “We definitely needed him.  He made clutch baskets and just kept us poised. He was our leader for the second half. And he did it all. He’s going to be in the Hall of Fame one day.”

Jamal Murray had already broken the franchise record for most points scored by a Nuggets player in a playoff series before the ball was even tipped for Game 7 against the Jazz. His 17 on Tuesday night were just icing on the cake, while Nikola Jokic’s 30 points catapulted him to a tie for fourth.

PlayerSeriesGames (result)Points
Jamal MurrayWC 1st round vs. Jazz, 20207 (won series)221
Nikola JokicWC Semis vs. Blazers, 20197 (lost series)190
David ThompsonWC Semis vs. Bucks, 19787 (won series)185
Nikola JokicWC 1st round vs. Jazz, 20207 (won series)184
Carmelo AnthonyWC 1st round vs. Jazz, 20106 (lost series)184
Alex EnglishWC Semis vs. Rockets, 19866 (lost series)175
Jamal MurrayWC Semis vs. Blazers, 20197 (lost series)165
Carmelo AnthonyWC Finals vs. Lakers, 20096 (lost series)165
Nikola JokicWC 1st round vs. Spurs, 20197 (won series)162
Alex EnglishWC Semis vs. Mavericks, 19886 (lost series)155