579 days prior to the Denver Nuggets win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on the Timberwolves own floor, things were drastically different, but also eerily the same.
On that fateful day over 18 months ago, the Nuggets were playing their final regular season game in Minnesota on the Target Center floor just like they were on Sunday afternoon, but the stakes were much different.
That early-April game was a playoff game by every measurement other than its official title. If the Nuggets beat the Timberwolves, it would be Denver who makes the playoffs. If Minnesota won, it would be the Timberwolves earning the final playoff spot in the Western Conference playoffs.
It was a literal ‘win-or-go-home’ battle between two division opponents on the final game of the regular season.
The game was close all the way until the final buzzer sounded, but at the very end of the regulation, the Nuggets had the ball with the game tied at 101 points apiece with 4.4 seconds remaining. A bucket would mean Denver’s first postseason appearance in five years. A miss would send them to overtime with a possibility of going home with nothing to show for their 82 games of work.
Paul Millsap inbounded to Jokic, who received the ball on the baseline near the corner. As Jokic attempted to hit a step-back jumper over Taj Gibson to send the Nuggets to the playoffs, but Gibson was able to swipe the ball away from Jokic as he went up to shoot it which sent the game to overtime.
In overtime, the Nuggets were outscored by six points and the rest is history.
Now, 579 days after that brutal day, the Nuggets found themselves back at the Target Center in a tightly contested game, just like it was in April of 2018, but Jokic has grown immensely since that overtime loss.
This time, it was the Joker who had the last laugh.
From nearly the exact same spot on the floor in overtime on the road against the Timberwolves, Jokic received the ball, dribbled near the baseline, but instead of failing to get a shot up, Jokic drilled a game-winning jumper over the out-stretched arm of Towns.
In those 579 days since the Nuggets 2017-18 season ended, Jokic has evolved from the player who couldn’t get a shot up in the most important game of his career to one of the elite closers in the National Basketball Association.
I know that sounds crazy, but it is true. Jokic has unequivocally become one of the elite closers in the NBA.
First off, let’s just talk about how miraculous it is that Jokic just hit his second game-winning jump shot in a row. Jokic is now just the third player to have back-to-back game-winning buckets since the 2010-11 season joining Manu Ginobili, who did it in December of 2010, and Damian Lillard, who did exactly two years later in December of 2013. That means Jokic is the first person in just under seven years to have back-to-back game-winning shots.
(As a cherry on top, Jokic had his back-to-back game-winning jumpers against the two centers that people argue are better than him. He hit an absurd jumper against the 76ers and Joel Embed — who Jokic out-played all night — to win the game on Friday. Then, not even 48 hours later, Jokic drilled the fadeaway jumper from the baseline over Karl-Anthony Towns to beat the Timberwolves on their own floor.)
While the phrase ‘Jokic has back-to-back game-winning shots’ sounds great when you say it out loud, that stat only involves two games. What about all of the other games that Jokic has played in that came down to the wire?
Well, in the nine games Denver has played this season, the Nuggets are 6-1 in clutch games — which are defined as games that are decided by five points or less — and Jokic has been the main reason for their success.
During clutch situations — defined as games within five-points-or-less with five-minutes-or-less remaining — Jokic has the second-most made baskets in the NBA with 12. He has played 29 minutes worth of “clutch” basketball and has 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists. He is posting an offensive rating of 115.1 and a defensive rating of 92.3 which equates to a +22.8 net rating. He is shooting 60% from the field, is 2-2 on 3-pointers and has played some fantastic defense as well.
Simply stated, those numbers are completely insane. But they are coming from a small sample size which makes those stats somewhat untrustworthy at first glance. So let’s go back to the 2018-19 season and see how Jokic performed in clutch situations, shall we?
Last season, Jokic logged 138 minutes in clutch situations and led the Nuggets to the best record in clutch games. Over 43 games decided by five-points-or-less, the Nuggets went 31-12. In those games, Jokic played 138 minutes and had a 113.8 offensive rating, 90.3 defensive rating which equals out to a +23.5 net rating.
If you couldn’t already tell, those numbers are almost identical to the advanced numbers that he is posting this season.
Let’s take it a step forward by simplifying the equation that defines what a clutch player is. An overly simple definition of being clutch means that you make the most shots that lead to wins for your team at the very last second.
When using that metric, Jokic has been the most clutch player in all of basketball when totaling up last year and this season. Since the start of the 2018-19 season, Jokic has six game-winning shots in the last 10 seconds of the game which leads the NBA. Paul George is second in the league with four game-winning shots of his.
At this point, it is impossible not to include Jokic as one of the most clutch players in the entire NBA.