The Denver Nuggets went on the road to face the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night on national TV, and it didn’t look good after the third quarter.

Then, Nikola Jokic hit the greatest shot of his NBA career, a bank shot buzzer beater at halfcourt to win the game.

The Nuggets were down by as many as 18 points in the fourth quarter, but they never gave up. Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon played the whole fourth quarter. The defense finally locked in after a night of horrible defensive breakdowns. Denver just kept chipping away, making play after play to give themselves a chance to win.

Then, Jokic won it. In epic fashion.

Nikola Jokic was up to his dominant ways as usual, putting together an extremely efficient and effective performance once again. Jokic had 34 points on 13-of-16 from the field, including the game winner. He added 10 assists and nine rebounds, missing out on the triple-double just barely but adding two steals and a block. It was one of the games when Jokic looked to be his most locked in from the jump, and that laser focus clearly paid off.

Though Warriors coach Steve Kerr made pleas to the NBA to allow the Warriors the opportunity to defend Jokic without fouling, they only did one of those things. Denver’s superstar big man had just seven free throws, going 6-of-7, so he made the most of his opportunities at the line and scored the majority of his points without needing the free throw stripe.

On an aside, Jokic is on an impressive streak of free throw shooting, making his last 30 free throws in a row before tonight. Jokic missed one in the second half, but he’s been nails from the free throw line for a while.

Aaron Gordon, in his second game back since returning from injury, added 30 efficient points of his own. Gordon shot 11-of-17 from the field, 2-of-4 from three, and 6-of-7 from the line himself. He was aggressive throughout the evening, punishing smaller Warriors players under the basket by dunking and drawing fouls. The efficient foul shooting was especially important tonight for obvious reasons. Gordon also had some clutch defensive plays late in the game, including a block on rookie Brandin Podziemski.

Jamal Murray was scoreless in the first quarter and dealt with foul trouble throughout the evening, but he soon rounded into form and scored 25 points himself. Murray and Jokic ran the pick and roll to perfection in the second half, scoring on his own but also setting up Jokic in the middle of the floor. Murray struggled defensively tonight, but he and the Nuggets locked in late and did just enough to eke out a win.

Finally, Peyton Watson deserves a ton of credit tonight. He hit a clutch three after entering the game with three minutes to go. Nobody would have blamed him if he missed that shot right in front of the Warriors bench, but he hit it. Because of course he did. Denver needed everything to go their way to come back tonight, and Watson made some important plays, scoring 19 points and grabbing five rebounds. He replaced Michael Porter Jr. in the closing lineup, and the Nuggets paid off that decision by Michael Malone nicely.

Back to Jokic though…

It’s so rare for a player to bear the burden of expectations the way Jokic does. When he doesn’t get a triple-double, my first thought is usually: “what happened?” My second thought it usually: “Look at what else he did…holy cow.” There are few players in NBA history that have ever been held to that expectation, especially after coming off of a championship and doing it in the manner Jokic just did.

There are players around the NBA doing amazing things right now. Joel Embiid is scoring a million points a game. Giannis Antetokounmpo is putting up Jokic-like efficiency. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is leading the upstart OKC Thunder to new heights. Luka Doncic is practically averaging a 30-point triple-double himself.

And yet, there are certain levels that Jokic can elevate to, staying there for prolonged periods of time, that others just can’t match. His ability to impact the game in every facet is unparalleled, and the only player in NBA history that can match him in “number of ways to defeat an opponent” is probably 2018 LeBron James.

The statistics have always been on Jokic’s side, but it’s more than that as he plays out the ninth year. Jokic’s feel for the game, understanding of what it needs, and acceptance of what it takes to get the job done is what makes him special. When the team needed a lead playmaker early in his career, he learned. When the team needed a leading scorer, he learned. When the team needed a better defender, he learned. When the team needed him to put it all together, he learned. When the team needed him to be a leader, he learned.

And, when the team needed a player to transcend expectations to lift them to new heights, he learned that too.

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