A pickup truck doing ballet: Nikola Jokić is making the NBA finals his masterpiece

As the Denver Nuggets tighten their grip on the NBA finals, their singular star is making a convincing claim for historical greatness

Hybridity has always been in Nikola Jokić’s basketball DNA; after all, this is a player who was famously drafted by Denver in the middle of a Taco Bell commercial for the quesadilla-burrito mash-up known as a quesarito. The pretty, historic town of Sombor, where Jokić grew up, is tucked into the northwestern pocket of Serbia, flush against the borders with Croatia and Hungary; the Hungarian, Habsburg, Ottoman and Austrian empires have all, at various points over the past half-millennium, laid claim to it.

Jokić, perhaps fittingly given his origins, has emerged over this postseason as the NBA’s ultimate border-hopper: a centre with the touch of a guard, a prodigious scorer who’s better as a passer, the embodiment of total basketball, infinitely adaptable, positionless but always in position, a crossroads in human form.

As Denver tightened their grip on the finals with a coolly commanding Game 3 win in Miami on Wednesday night, a talent that once threatened to go unrewarded with the hard currency of titles has come thrillingly into mint. Jokić’s numbers – 32 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists – made him the first player ever to post a 30-20-10 game in the NBA finals. But most impressive was the way in which he accumulated these figures, with a freedom and variety that captured the best of his childhood heroes.

Growing up in Serbia in the early years of this century, Jokić would spend hours on YouTube watching his favourite NBA players. “I watched Magic because of his passing, and Hakeem because of his post moves, and Jordan because he is Jordan,” Jokic wrote in 2016, a year after joining the Denver Nuggets as a second-round draft pick.


The two-time MVP is clomping through these finals with the vision and improvisational sizzle of Magic, Hakeem the Dream’s size-defying touch and footwork, and Jordan’s on-court omnipresence and invincibility, his sheer weight of numbers and aura of statistical destiny. A claim for historical greatness is convincingly being assembled.

The history of the NBA is replete with examples of small men who played against type to impose themselves in the paint: Spud Webb, Muggsy Bogues, Allen Iverson. Jokić is the rare big man who plays against type. Although he’s close to seven feet tall, his greatest skills are those more typically associated with players many inches his inferior: passing, dribbling, ball handling, court awareness. Instead of playing “above the rim” like someone of his immensity normally would, he operates below it; he plays above and around the heads of his opponents, across their backs, through their legs, under arms raised haplessly in defence.

The staggering stats Jokić puts up, game to game, will always be the alpha of his claim to greatness, but it’s his refusal to do the things that basketball “bigs” are usually expected to – muscle up in the paint, wait for the ball to come to him, dunk – that form that claim’s omega, that make him so uniquely charming.

If Game 1 of these finals was a passing clinic and Game 2 highlighted his scoring touch, then Game 3 offered a stage for Jokić to demonstrate his mastery of game management. Whatever his team needed, Jokić was on hand to provide it, varying his output in line with the game’s fluctuations in momentum. Through a tight opening quarter he was a defensive monster, controlling the boards with bulky authority and starving the Heat of second balls; in the second quarter he began to take control on offence, deploying his full range of spins, hooks, fakes and dinks – off both hands – in the paint.

But it was in the second half that the true shape of this masterpiece became apparent. The Nuggets have struggled with concentration throughout these finals, fading at the end of Game 1 to make the ultimate scoreline far closer than the game felt in real time, then switching off in the final quarter of Game 2 to let Miami even up the series. Towards the end of Wednesday’s third quarter, as the Nuggets began to pull away from their opponents, it briefly seemed as if Jimmy Butler might inspire the Heat to sneak back into the game. Jokić calmly took the ball in hand and sank his first three-pointer of the night. The sight of the great man letting fly from distance, his hands throwing tall in high Larry Bird-style, immediately galvanised those in blue. The Nuggets embarked on a lightning scoring spree; from there, the game’s ultimate direction seemed subject to little doubt.

Jokić is averaging 31 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists a game so far this postseason. There’s little doubt he is the best player on the planet right now, an achievement that never ceases to amaze whenever you catch a glimpse of the man – his head pushed forward, the shoulders round and mouth gaping, that ham of a nose sniffing out routes to the basket. One of the world’s greatest athletes is now one of its least athletic-looking.

Jokić’s body is like a mattress – blocky and enormous but somehow soft – and he has the upper arms of a management consultant; there is nothing chiselled or ripped about his physique. No matter how many accolades and rings he goes on to win in his career – and there are surely many more to come – Jokić will never, I imagine, stop seeming like a man who’s wandered on to the basketball court by accident on his way to a family barbecue.

Even in peak form Jokić’s machinations on the court seem somehow improbable. The NBA’s contemporary greats all have a signature style of movement. LeBron James thunders, James Harden ambles, Steph Curry bounces, Kevin Durant glides, Ben Simmons sits. Jokic happens – awkwardly, implausibly, and, it sometimes seems, unintentionally, but with a kind of inevitability. At times his limbs seem to get ahead of him like baseball bats spilling from a bag; at others there’s a kind of patterned tranquillity about his movements that recalls stop motion animation. Many of his shots are taken off balance, with a single hand, from the waist, above the head, or in a position that suggests that Jokić is about to hit the deck.

Somehow, though, it all works. Surprise is the key to his mastery. Unorthodox, off-kilter and on fire, Jokić is the most delightfully effective gallumpher that basketball has ever seen. If Curry is the master of the half court, a long-range scoring threat from the moment the ball passes the halfway line, Jokic is the master of the full court: a man who can do it all, while never seeming on the cusp of doing anything. To observe him in full flow is like watching a pickup truck do ballet.

The Jokić-led Nuggets have enjoyed deep postseason runs before, but something about this year feels different. Jamal Murray – who grabbed his own triple-double in Game 3 – is finally free of the ACL troubles that stalled his ascent in recent seasons; together, he and Jokić represent the best big-small combination since Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in Twins. And the calibre of the supporting cast has improved, with Aaron Gordon in particular adding an elite presence in defence.

With LeBron set to retire, Curry – however prolific he remains – approaching his late 30s, and the glamour franchises from the coastal population centres all cycling through some version of buying a theoretical James Harden to fix all their problems, the low-key, undramatic Nuggets – assuming they can retain their playing core – seem ideally placed to become Golden State-grade fixtures of the postseason.

Standing at the centre of it all will be Jokić, this origami redwood, the man with the gift for forcing the game while never seeming to be in a hurry. There’s something refreshingly adult about a man who moved to the US with his brothers at 20, married his hometown girlfriend, and thinks social media is “a waste of time”. Jokić is a man, seemingly, untempted by distraction. Family, basketball and horses are his great passions. At 28, he still has plenty of time left in his playing career. Nothing seems likely to stop him from delicately obliterating his rivals and dominating the NBA for years to come.