Nikola Jokic’s selfless play the difference in Nuggets’ Game 1 win

After two years of winning the MVP — unseated by Joel Embiid this season — Nikola Jokic is earning another honor: MSS.

Most Selfless Superstar.

Jokic’s sublime triple-double in his NBA Finals debut led the host Nuggets to a 104-93 Game 1 victory over the Heat. The Denver center carved up what had been a rock-solid Miami defense, controlled the game without even having to score, put himself in the history books and his team in early control of this series.

“I don’t force it. I never force it,” Jokic said. “It was a couple guys had it going, [Aaron Gordon] was playing really good, and we had advantage there. I just take whatever the game gives me.”

Taking from Miami, and giving to his teammates.

Jokic had a game-high 27 points, game-high 14 assists and 10 rebounds. The assists were the most in a Finals debut, the most by a center in any Finals game, and typical of his selfless style.

Nikola Jokic, who had a game-high 14 assists, looks to make a pass during the Nuggets' 104-93 Game 1 win over the Heat.
Nikola Jokic, who had a game-high 14 assists, looks to make a pass during the Nuggets’ 104-93 Game 1 win over the Heat.
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“That’s the beauty of Nikola,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “I learned a long time ago the defense tells you what to do, and Nikola never forces it. If they’re going to give him that kind of attention — he had 10 assists at halftime, I believe — well, he’s going to just pick you apart.

“Yeah, one thing about Nikola is he takes great satisfaction in making plays for others. He really does. I think he takes more joy in that. I don’t think he cares if he scored 27 points or not. He cares that we’re up 1-0.”

Denver is up 1-0 because Jokic dissected the defense like a surgeon.

The Serbian star had six assists to spot Denver to a 27-18 lead right out of the gate before he had even attempted a single shot, the most first-quarter assists in an NBA Finals game in 25 years. His Nuggets teammates shot 10 of 12 on his passes in the first half, Miami not daring to play zone for fear of being picked part.

Erik Spoelstra had reason to worry. He sprinkled in some zone against Jokic in the third, and by the time he actually turned to it in the fourth — with Denver rolling 84-63 — it didn’t work. Not that the Heat didn’t execute; but Jokic was better.

Miami opened with an 11-0 run, but Jokic broke the drought with an incredible in-traffic assist to Jeff Green. Then, after having taken just five shots coming into the fourth quarter, Jokic poured in 12 points in the final stanza.

Nikola Jokic, who had a triple-double, celebrates after the Nuggets' Game 1 win.
Nikola Jokic, who had a triple-double, celebrates after the Nuggets’ Game 1 win.
NBAE via Getty Images

“Right now, the most important thing is to win a game, and I’m trying to win any possible way. I don’t need to shoot and I don’t need to score,” Jokic said in an on-court TV interview. “I know I don’t need to score to effect the game in a positive way, and I think I did a good job.”

Jokic’s gravity — his ability to roll and pop — created space for others like Jamal Murray (26 points, 10 assists). They became the first teammates to go 25-10 in the NBA Finals since Magic Johnson and James Worthy in 1987, and Jokic’s running mate said that selfless style is par for the course with the Serb.

Nikola Jokic makes a pass around Bam Adebayo during the Nuggets' victory.
Nikola Jokic makes a pass around Bam Adebayo during the Nuggets’ victory.
USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

“That’s just the way he plays the game,” Murray said. “If everybody else is scoring, then there’s no need to force it. He’s a great passer, great facilitator. They’re digging, they’re doubling, they’re trying not to let him score. … That’s just the way he plays — just let the game kind of come to him.”

Many credit Jokic with instilling that style in Denver, his passing and team-first ethos becoming contagious. But of course, he’s too humble to take credit for it.

“I didn’t say that. I said we’re playing good brand of basketball, not beautiful and not great. That’s how I learned to play basketball, and it’s really nice to play … everybody is moving, doing something,” Jokic said. “It’s a really nice brand of basketball that we have, and everybody buys in. I’m not sure that I did that for us, but everybody contributed and everybody accepted it.”

It’s why the sports world is realizing the two-time MVP is also the Most Selfless Superstar. Three more games like this and he can add NBA champion as well.