As Denver Nuggets fans celebrated the first NBA title and the basketball players sang "We are the champions" on stage with the trophy in the middle, Nikola Jokic stood on the fringes of the group. With his little daughter Ognjena on his shoulders and almost the only one still wearing a white jersey instead of the black championship T-shirt, the 28-year-old Serb seemed almost embarrassed in the last row.
Few things are more uncomfortable for the best player on his team than being the center of attention. As the most valuable player in the final series, however, he received the greatest possible attention - and the hype around him is unlikely to decrease after his first NBA title.
"It was a great effort by the team," said Jokic after the crucial 94:89 win over the Miami Heat. "There are so many factors. I'm just happy. It feels good. The job is done, we can go home now." With the necessary fourth win in the fifth game of the series, the Nuggets made everything clear. Jokic once again had the largest share with 28 points and 16 rebounds. "We love him," said his coach Michael Malone - and announced more titles in Colorado: "We are not satisfied with one, we want more."
TV pundit Stephen A. Smith caught these words: "You usually say that on the day of the parade, or at least in the days after. He said it, it felt, five seconds after the win because they know who they are and who they are they have," the commentator said. "They let the world know that they are here to stay." Other greats paid homage to Jokic. "That puts him in the category of legends. I don't know if there was ever a center that delivered statistics like that in the final," said ex-pro Isiah Thomas.
With an average of 30.2 points, 14 rebounds and 7.2 assists, Jokic dominated against the Heat as before throughout the NBA playoffs. The title as the most valuable player of the finals was therefore no surprise. No one posted more points, assists or rebounds in the playoffs than the Nuggets center, who had previously been voted Main Round Most Valuable Player in 2021 and 2022. Jokic now also dominated the playoffs like Shaquille O'Neal, who had previously become the last center MVP in the finals, a good 20 years ago.
For the sports fans in Serbia, who cheered on in the middle of the night, less than two days after tennis pro Novak Djokovic's record victory at the French Open, it was the next reason to celebrate. And Germany's national soccer player Thomas Müller is also impressed by the extraordinary basketball player. "I love watching this guy play," Müller wrote on Instagram about Jokic.
At the latest, Jokic should have become an icon in his homeland. He sometimes seems like the slowest best player in the world. But maybe that's exactly why he's currently better than everyone else - because he manages to impose his own pace on this high-speed sport like few others. Luka Doncic from the Dallas Mavericks can do it too, as can superstar LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers). In recent months, however, no one has had more control over the rhythm of so many games than the Nuggets' No. 15 jersey.
Jokic was never really fast. Because there are photos of him as an overweight boy and he looked anything but well-trained at the beginning of his NBA career, a stigma stuck to him for a long time: too many kilos and not enough athleticism. "They described him as a chubby teenager, but they underestimated him," said Nuggets owner Stanley Kroenke at the acclaimed award ceremony.
The 28-year-old is still a long way from defined upper arms like those of NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the experts agree: Jokic has never been as fit as he was in this season that was crowned with the title. Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Bam Adebayo - Jokic had all his opponents under control in these playoffs through endurance and never-ending energy. Because if he wants, Jokic can sprint all over the place, even in the last quarter - he just has to make sense of it. Otherwise, he just commands the ball across the field as he sees fit.
Incredibly precise passing game
There are hardly any antidotes: Jokic is 2.11 meters tall, weighs around 130 kilograms, has the ball feeling of a point guard and is also at risk of throwing from beyond the three-point line as well as close to the basket. And, one of his great strengths: an incredibly precise passing game. When the Nuggets turned a 5-0 into a 12-5 in the first quarter on their way to the title, Jokic didn't even try to throw himself. But his passes put his teammates in the necessary position.
Before the confetti was shot from the hall ceiling and the big party in Denver began, Jokic had finally thrown 16 times on the basket. Twelve of the attempts went in. A shot rate of 75 percent with more than 40 minutes on the field? Abnormal in this league. "You can't really put that in context," said teammate Michael Porter Jr. "People don't understand how good a basketball player he is." Thanks to the title, at least a few more people know about it now. Even if Jokic himself is probably not so right.