The Joker's On Us

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USA News-Sports Division May 22, 2023
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The Joker's On Us

The Joker's On Us

The Denver Nuggets are now one win away from reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.  They beat the Los Angeles Lakers at Arena last night by a score of 119-108 to take a commanding 3-0 series lead in the Western Conference Finals.  Jamal Murray led the Nuggets with 37 points and has played extremely well during Denver’s 2023 playoff run.  However, there is one player on Denver’s roster who has been a bit better.  There is ZERO doubt who the man is that makes the Nuggets go: two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic.  That has been especially true during these playoffs.

Jokic had another incredible regular season in leading the Denver Nuggets to the #1 seed in the NBA’s Western Conference.  The man nearly averaged a triple-double in the regular season.  All Jokic did was average 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 9.8 assists per game.  He would have joined Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook as the only players in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season.  Robertson and Westbrook did it as guards.  Jokic is a 6’11’’ center!   “The Joker” was also selected as an NBA All-Star for the fifth time.  He was an All-NBA selection for the fifth time as well being named to this season’s All-NBA Second Team.  Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers was named to the All-NBA First Team ahead of the 28-year-old Serbian.   Embiid also beat out Jokic in voting for the 2022-23 NBA Most Valuable Player award.   

As great as he played during the regular season, Jokic has taken his game to even greater heights during the 2023 NBA Playoffs.  The Denver Nuggets have played in 14 games in this season’s playoffs so far.  That’s counting last night’s game.  Jokic has posted a triple-double in SEVEN of the Nuggets’ 14 playoff games.  That’s insane!  In fact, he IS averaging a triple-double with 29.9 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 10.1 assists per game in the postseason so far.  He’s dominated his opponents in every facet of the game.   Jokic is even shooting a ridiculous 47.1% from 3-point range during the playoffs!  Again, the man is doing this as a 6’11’’ center!!!

There’s only one player who has played as well as, if not better than Nikola Jokic during the 2023 NBA Playoffs and that’s Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat.  Personally, I give the nod to Jokic for his all-around game but not by much.  Both are destined to win their respective conference’s playoff MVP awards, assuming the Heat and Nuggets advance to the NBA Finals.  Butler has played like a man possessed in these playoffs.  His play during the Heat’s playoff run has been – dare I say Jordan-esque?  He even beat the Knicks in a playoff series like Jordan routinely did!  Look at Jimmy Butler’s Game Log and playoff averages.  Tell me those stats don’t compare to those of MJ’s during any Bulls title runs.

The “Honey Bear” is playing out of his mind right now and is doing all that he can to lead the Nuggets to an NBA Championship.  Nikola Jokic’s playoff averages and stats are unheard of for a center.  While Jimmy Butler’s playoff run reminds me of MJ, Jokic’s playoff play, more importantly the statement he’s making in these playoffs, reminds me of another pair of Hall-of-Fame centers…

The San Antonio Spurs finished the 1994-95 NBA regular Season with a league best 62-20 record and were the top seeded team in the Western Conference.  David Robinson had won a scoring title the previous season and turned in another stellar campaign for the Spurs in ’94-95.  Robinson’s Spurs reached the 1995 NBA Western Conference Finals where they met the Houston Rockets who also possessed a future Hall-of-Fame center – Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon. 

The Houston Rockets were the defending champions having won the 1994 NBA Title.  Olajuwon was also the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year.  “The Dream” was also the league’s reigning MVP.  However, the Rockets struggled to defend their crown early in the ’94-95 season.  Houston added Olajuwon’s college teammate and future Hall-of-Famer Clyde Drexler at the trade deadline in an attempt to shake up the roster.  The Rockets managed to enter the ’95 Playoffs as the West’s Sixth Seed.  No team seeded that low had ever won a title up to that point.

The Rockets then upset the 60-win Utah Jazz and the 59-win Phoenix Suns to reach the Western Conference Finals.  Houston narrowly defeated the Spurs in the Alamodome in Game 1 of the ’95 West Finals by a score of 94-93.  Other than Houston taking back home-court advantage in the series, the Rockets winning wasn’t that big of a deal.  Sure, David Robinson struggled shooting (5-17) but still managed to finish with 21 points and 9 rebounds against Olajuwon’s 27 points and 8 rebounds.  No big deal, right?

Then there were the pregame festivities prior to Game 2…

The late-David Stern was in attendance in San Antonio to take in Game 2 of the Spurs/Rockets series.  He also presented David Robinson with the 1994-95 NBA’s Most Valuable Player trophy prior to tip-off.  It’s hard to argue against Robinson being deserving of that season’s MVP.  Remember, the MVP is a regular season award.  Robinson (27.6 points per game, 10.8 rebounds per, 3.2 blocks per) was the best player on the league’s best team that season.  If you took “The Admiral” off of the Spurs that year they would be a lottery team.  Their 1996-97 season proved just that.  You could make an argument that the Orlando Magic’s Shaquille O’Neal was just as deserving (29.3 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 2.4 bpg).  His Magic had the best record in the East and O’Neal won his first scoring title.  That wasn’t enough to top Robinson in the minds of voters.

Hakeem Olajuwon has entered the chat.

“The Dream” begged to differ.  While Robinson was a great player at that time, Olajuwon felt slighted.  He didn’t finish second in MVP voting to Robinson.  He wasn’t third behind O’Neal either.  Hakeem Olajuwon was fifth in MVP voting for the 1994-95 season.  FIFTH!  Karl Malone of the Jazz and Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks finished ahead of “The Dream.”  How??? Olajuwon’s per game stats in the ’94-95 season were actually slightly better than those of Robinson.

Robinson - 27.6 points 10.8 rebounds, 3.2 blocks

Olajuwon – 27.8 PPG, 10.8 rebounds, 3.4 blocks

Robinson did play in more games that Olajuwon (81 to 72) and his team won more games (62 to 47).  Again, it’s hard argue that David Robinson wasn’t deserving of the MVP in 1995.  It’s just that the late commission didn’t do him any favors by presenting the trophy to him in front of Olajuwon before Game 2.  The Spurs were already down 1-0 in the series.  Now, they had to face a motivated Hakeem Olajuwon to salvage a split at home before heading to Houston.  Ruh roh, Rastro!  Here’s what happened next.

Insert this video

All that Olajuwon did in that Game 2 was score 41 points, grab 16 boards, dish out 4 assists, and block 2 shots.  Most people forget that Robinson had a good game as well (32 points, 12 rebounds, 1 block), but the eye test shows that Olajuwon dominated him in a 106-96 Rockets victory.  Even though the Spurs managed to win the next two games of that series in Houston it was Olajuwon who continued to win his matchup with Robinson.

Game 3:

Olajuwon: 43 points, 11 rebounds, 5 blocks

Robinson: 29 points, 9 rebounds, 1 block

Game 4:

Olajuwon: 20 points, 14 rebounds, 3 blocks

Robinson: 20 points, 16 rebounds, 5 blocks

Game 5:

Olajuwon: 42 points, 9 rebounds, 5 blocks

Robinson: 22 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks

Game 6:

Olajuwon: 39 points, 17 rebounds, 5 blocks

Robinson: 19 points, 10 rebounds, 1 block

It wasn’t even close.  The numbers don’t tell the whole story either.  Everyone remembers Olajuwon Dream-Shaking Robinson to death throughout the series.  Robinson even went on to say that he thought he did a good job on Olajuwon, even though he knew it would sound silly.  The Houston Rockets defeated the San Antonio Spurs in six games to reach the 1995 NBA Finals.  Houston then swept Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic to win their second consecutive NBA Championship. 

Yes, Olajuwon also outplayed Shaq in the finals, but it was even more telling to see the way he made league MVP David Robinson look silly in the conference finals.  Prior to the 1994 season it was believed that Robinson was the better player of the two.  There was absolutely ZERO doubt after the 1995 West Finals that Olajuwon was better than “The Admiral.”  And the video clip highlights prove it to a whole other extent!  Dream thought they gave his MVP trophy to someone else.  He proved it should have been his trophy.

Fast forward back to today.  Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are undoubtedly the league’s best two centers in the NBA right now.  Jokic was the two-time defending MVP heading into this season.  Embiid was the league’s reigning scoring champ.  “The Process” won a second straight scoring title and gained national headlines by winning MVP.  Unfortunately, we will not see an Embiid vs. Jokic matchup in this year’s NBA Finals.  Embiid’s 76ers were defeated in the East Semis by the Boston Celtics in seven games.  This year’s MVP struggled in Game 7.  

Jokic wasn’t on-hand to see NBA Commissioner Adam Silver hand Embiid the MVP trophy I’m sure he thought that he deserved.  I have no doubt he saw it on TV or saw the highlights at minimum.  I also have no doubt that Embiid winning MVP motived “The Joker.”  While he’s not directly matched up with Embiid in these playoffs, Jokic has been playing out of his mind.  In the SEVEN games since it was announced that Joel Embiid was named this year’s MVP Nikola Jokic has done the following:

Average 32.1 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 12.3 assists per game

Post five triple-doubles

Led his Denver Nuggets to five wins against two losses

Advance to the Conference Finals

Left zero doubt in everyone’s minds as to who is the better player right now

Jokic may not admit it to the public, but there’s no doubt his recent play has been in response to Embiid winning the MVP.  Of course, that’s in addition in doing whatever he can to lead the Nuggets to an NBA Title.  There may not a visual from these playoffs of Jokic dominating Embiid one-on-one like there are of Olajuwon vs. Robinson in 1995.  The difference is that Nikola Jokic is playing so well right now that he IS in fact dominating Joel Embiid.  Jokic’s Nuggets are still alive and are on the verge of the NBA Finals.  Joel Embiid and his 76ers are nowhere to be found.  It’s now impossible to say “The Process” is a better overall player with a straight face.

THAT is why Nikola Jokic’s play in this year’s playoffs reminds me of Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995.  Both were reigning MVPs who watched a rival top center win an MVP that arguably should have been awarded to them.  Both dominated (albeit in different ways) their rivals after they were newly crowned MVPs.  Both Jokic and Olajuwon left little doubt in the minds of basketball fans who was the better player between them and their rivals.  All Jokic has to do now is finish the job and lead his Nuggets to an NBA Title.  No pressure.

We never got to see Michael Jordan match up with Hakeem Olajuwon in the NBA Finals.  In a way, this year’s playoffs may bring us the closest thing to that matchup.   If Jimmy Butler continues to ball out at this pace, he could lead his Miami Heat squad to the NBA Finals against Nikola Jokic and his Denver Nuggets.   Nuggets versus Heat may not be the sexiest matchup on paper, but it could make for an interesting NBA Finals.

To quote Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, “put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

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