Nikola Jokić receives his third MVP trophy, then lifts Nuggets with an absolute masterpiece

DENVER — What began with a sheepish salute, a customary acknowledgement of history for a three-time MVP, ended with blown kisses to the crowd for Nikola Jokić, whose arms were tattered with bright red scratches.

Better scratches than tire marks on the backs of Rudy Gobert and the rest of the Minnesota Timberwolves, courtesy of Jokić and his one-man demolition.

Sooner or later, Jokić and his genius would be heard from. The longer a series goes, the greater the chance he figures out the coverages he can see and manipulates the strategies he can’t.

Combine that into a series that was separated by a grand total of two points heading into a tie-breaking Game 5, and it had all the ingredients for a joker to run wild.

It was one of the finest performances of Jokić's playoff career, his first 40-point game of this postseason, him possessing total command in a 112-97 Game 5 win over the Timberwolves at Ball Arena, the first home win for either team in this series.

A weird series has suddenly come into focus, and the Nuggets are within one game of going further than any defending champion has gone since 2019, which is back to the Western Conference finals.

The matter of time became a matter of fact whenever Jokić touched the ball during his 40-point, 13-assist and 7-rebound evening. He repeatedly torched Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and whomever else dared to get in his way.

He received the Michael Jordan Most Valuable Player trophy from commissioner Adam Silver before tipoff, almost giving off the impression again that this was something he couldn’t care less about. His teammates mobbed him, and the Ball Arena faithful — who couldn’t be sure they would see him awarded the MVP trophy at home following the first two games of this series — made sure to show appreciation.

Even if he feigned carelessness, it's clear championship pride beats in his heart, and if the Nuggets are to be beaten in this series or any other, that win will have to be ripped from Jokić’s cold, lifeless hands.

“Sometimes a loss like Game 2 can do a lot of different things,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But I think for us, it struck a nerve and reminded us of, ‘OK, let's get back to doing what we do, and how we do it, for a lot closer to 48 minutes.’ And I think we played like champions the last three games.”

It was Jokić's fifth 40-point playoff game in 78 career postseason games and the second time of the five he topped double-digits in assists. But more than the statistics, it’s important to know the calm he seems to establish throughout a team that’s suddenly playing good basketball for the first time in these playoffs.

It’s probably unfair to Gobert, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year who repeatedly finds himself both underappreciated and rightfully scrutinized. He’s a better team defender than a man-up type, and Jokić knows it.

Gobert was $75,000 lighter in the pockets for the money gesture he made toward officials during Game 4, which wasn’t the first time he’s intimated such activity toward game refs this season.

The chippiness, the sniping, began to surface in this series just a little bit. Malone was short on a pregame question regarding Anthony Edwards’ chirping toward Jamal Murray at the end of Game 4, and Timberwolves coach Chris Finch was highly annoyed at Gobert’s fine, then delivered this zinger to the league office.

“But I'd like to see the itemized receipt, you know, because if it's $75,000 for the money gesture, then it must be $10,000 for the towel and $15,000 for the heating pad,” Finch said, referencing Murray’s towel-throwing and heat-pad incident during Game 2’s blowout.

So if Gobert’s focus seemed to wane, allowing himself to be distracted by outside forces as the series progressed, Jokić’s seemed to sharpen.

And if Jokić likes the taste of competitive blood, Gobert offered himself as a sacrifice.

To be fair, only a hybrid of Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan could guard this version of Jokić. A defender needs the base of strength and dexterity to contend with him once he starts leaning on you, and even then he can softly loft eight-footers over the fingertips of men four inches taller.

He even cocked it back for a dunk, showing some rare athleticism that drew rave reviews from his teammates.

“I had the open lane,” Jokić said before dryly quipping, “I’m just a freak of nature.”

It was a joke, but he is a freak. It’s almost impossible to find the combination of his skills and instinct. He unleashed a full-court pass that nestled easily into Murray’s hands for a dunk — proof that his assists weren’t exactly risk-averse.

“What’s really neat is that just after the game I was talking to Jamal and he said, ‘Man, Nikola’s really good,’” Malone said. “What an understatement. For them to appreciate one another, and never take each other for granted is special.”

A 16-point, third-quarter blitz from Jokić was the difference, unleashing every move and counter to keep the young Timberwolves off-balance, to keep Gobert both guessing and aimlessly frustrated, and showing just how far the challengers have to go, even if they are just as talented as the champions.

“Every great player has gone through those trials and tribulations,” Malone said. “The failures, go down the list, all the great ones. We’re no different. Nikola’s no different, Jamal’s no different.”

If it’s no different for Jokić, it’s no different for Anthony Edwards, who for the first time in this series, played indecisively. The Timberwolves were without veteran point guard Mike Conley, a late scratch due to an Achilles injury he suffered late in Game 4, and a short rotation became even shorter.

The Nuggets swarmed Edwards, trapping him 40 feet from the basket with two players and a third not being far from eyesight. For a half, the Timberwolves seemed to defy everything happening in Ball Arena, staying close despite their own follies — committing three offensive fouls on successive plays, but still finding themselves down two for most of the second quarter.

If Edwards could get loose, if Towns and Gobert could exploit being seven feet tall, the Timberwolves could’ve walked away with yet another road win, thus creating an opportunity to close out the champions at home in Game 6 on Thursday night.

But Edwards couldn’t muster that 40-point magic from Game 4, a predictable return to Earth given the circumstances, finishing with 18 points and 9 assists, shooting 5-for-15. Without Conley, the player best equipped to give him the ball in spots where he wouldn’t face six eyes on him was the chubby fellow on the other side.

Gobert’s stat line wasn’t deplorable, he made all seven of his shots, scoring 18 points with 9 rebounds and was a team-high minus-two, while Towns rebounded from his disastrous Game 4 to lead the Timberwolves with 23 points and some nifty passes to Gobert. But they couldn’t equal the effect of Jokić.

And again, Edwards — a man who’s coming for the crown and could get there soon — called Jokić the best player in the world without any equivocation.

“We knew we had to do something different with Anthony Edwards, this man is a one-man wrecking crew,” Malone said. “We trapped him, double teamed him, flew around behind it, and that takes a lot of effort and guys committed to it.”

As the series moves on, to a likely conclusion in 48 hours, it’s clear the Nuggets look in the mirror and see who they are. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, look and the view is still cloudy, although at times they can almost reach their potential.

But the champions can be battered, scratched up and tested, yet still know what they have on their side cannot be matched in this life, only by the ghosts of history.

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