NBA

Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic flashes LeBron-like brilliance against Cavs

The seam was minimal, if it even existed at all.

Nikola Jokic caught the ball on the wing a few minutes into the fourth quarter Friday night and lofted a pass so risky not even he could know if it would land in the hands of its intended target. The pass, audacious enough that Russell Wilson wouldn’t dream of it, was over the hand of roving big man Jarrett Allen, beyond the outstretched arm of Darius Garland and within range of shot-blocking fiend Evan Mobley.

Bruce Brown dunked it, uncontested, a shot to the bow of the No. 1 defense in the NBA.

“I didn’t think it was open at all,” Brown said sheepishly after the Nuggets dismantled the Cavaliers, 121-108 for their ninth win in their last 11 games and 10th consecutive win at Ball Arena.

It was the type of pass Jokic conjured, seemingly, out of thin air. But that would be disrespecting his gift.

“I don’t know how he sees the game,” Brown said. “I wish I could see it like that. He’s different.”

Jokic assembled a 28-point, 15-rebound, 10-assist masterclass against the rangiest, most suffocating defense in the league. He deciphered Cleveland like it was the Enigma code.

Allen, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, looked helpless at times as Jokic swiveled around his reach and chipped away at Cleveland’s interior. What the Nuggets have assembled around Jokic is an embarrassment of riches on offense, a treasure chest so deep that Jokic can pick teams apart pulling any lever he wants.

Before finding Brown, he served Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on a seamless backdoor cut, baited Mobley into a double-team only to split the defense for an easy Aaron Gordon jam, and whipped turn-around passes to Michael Porter Jr. on the weakside corner that left the Cavaliers’ defense scrambling.

As if that wasn’t enough, he still had Jamal Murray rolling around a screen for an uncontested 3-pointer from the top of the arc. Nuggets GM Calvin Booth has outfitted his generational superstar with a devastating array of weapons.

“Teams are just in a tough spot, I guess,” Brown said with a wry, knowing tone.

On Friday, they made 17-of-35 3-pointers; on the season, their 40.1% 3-point shooting leads the NBA. It’s an offense so devastating that all possibilities should be on the table for this team, assuming their defense can improve even marginally.

“When we are willing to share the ball and pass and cut, and play for each other, we are a really, really hard team to beat,” Jokic said.

They become even harder to defend when Jokic stretches the defense from the perimeter. He drained three 3-pointers in the third quarter, unsheathing one more tool in his bottomless bag.

“I couldn’t believe it, to be honest, I was like, ‘Oh, what’s happening?’” Jokic said of the 3-pointers that have, mercifully, been inconsistent this season. But he’s even up to 35% on those attempts, rendering them somewhat of a strength, too.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone has invoked the comparison before, but against Cleveland, it felt even more fitting when LeBron James’ name came up in the postgame press conference.

“I compare those two a lot, and people think I’m crazy,” Malone said.

Beyond the obvious athletic differences, Jokic and James process and anticipate movements better than few ever have in NBA history. Malone, in comparing Jokic to a computer, said that not only does he have a catalog of how teams defend him, but he has datasets on how teams defend his other four teammates. His talent, combined with his IQ, paired with his unselfishness, has molded him into an offensive monster that is threatening the rarest air: a three-time MVP.

Malone meant no disrespect to Allen after the game, and he was trying to be careful with his words while describing Jokic’s brilliance.

“Nikola doesn’t see Defensive Player of the Year guys,” Malone said.

It’s a luxury the Nuggets enjoy but few people will ever know.

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