The Nuggets called timeout sometime in the 3rd quarter of the Golden State-Denver game, and the camera caught Nikola Jokić looking up at the scoreboard on the way to the bench to huddle with the team, and I thought to myself: The Joker is tired—well, looks tired. And it is just Game 1 of a best-of-seven first-round series.
Saying Jokić is/looks tired is not to suggest or insinuate anything weak, derogatory, or anything negative. Quite the opposite. When I saw him looking gassed, I think about how he is—has been—doing the heavy lifting for Denver, especially now that Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are not playing.
I think about how hard he played ever since he joined the league. And the best he can show for it (individual accomplishments, including record-setting feats, aside) is a 2019-20 Western Conference Finals defeat against eventual overall champions, the Los Angeles Lakers (4-1).
Are they doomed to fall again this season? Odds are, yes. The chances of a team with no prior championship experience, no championship pedigree, dealing with injured superstars, and this season ranked #6th in the West, winning it all are not promising.
If Denver wants to survive the improbable, it should start with Jokić’s teammates bringing their own winning energy. Jokić is the well from where his teammates draw energy, and for these intense, high-level games, that well will quickly dry, and with it, morale, fighting spirit, and the collective will.
Imagine the task: you need to win four times against your opponent to advance, only to face the same goal, only this time, against a stronger opponent. And how does success in this series rewards you? Another assignment to win four more games. It only stops when every talented, championship-caliber team has been defeated, and the championship has been won. This is why the title is the reward for the tireless. The quest to win a championship is not for teams unable to muster the kind of zeal that wins series at the expense of teams good only for occasional spurts.
So which one is Denver right now? The absence of that individual confident energy from Jokić’s teammates is very obvious, especially against a team like Golden State, where every player is radiating his own energy. They are not simply trying to feed off of the energy of Steph Curry or Draymond Green or Klay Thompson.
Time and again, we hear this same commentary: playoff basketball is demanding. To say that it is tough is simplifying it. The Playoffs is for players who can survive—and triumph—despite the long, slow grind. The Playoffs require confidence that manifests in how you play—it shows what you make of every open lane you are given—drive hard or opt to pass? That genuine, confident energy shows in whether you simply take what the defense gives you, or you make the defense scramble and pay for every missed cover. It shows in your willingness to take the hit and say play on, to avoid nitpicking on no-calls, to see clearly when the action around you seems to blur your view, to drown out the noise and hear only yours, your teammates, and your coach’s voices.
The mindset should be “let’s win this”, not “let’s try our best not to lose by a large margin”.
I am not surprised to see Jokić looking tired. Not because he is weak. He is tired because he is forced to give everything, and made to endure that feeling of being deflated when the scoreboard reminds you your best efforts and hard work are not enough and the Warriors are still ahead with a double-digit lead.
I am not a fan of Jokić but I wish that he finds himself in a great team soon. I want to watch him play with teammates who are really good. I want to watch him play in a system where he will really shine as an individual player and not as a savior. I want to see him playing really good basketball with really good teammates, and not having to purchase good basketball at the cost of exhaustion.
A great player need not exhaust himself, shoved closer and closer to breaking point. A great system need not require star players to finish games exhausted. That is why you have a system. That is why there are five of you on the floor.
Jokić is tired not just because of Game 1 rigors. He is tired, but not because he gave it his all. He is tired because there is no one helping him. His exhaustion —that look of exhaustion in Game 1, I think, is mental fatigue. You gave it all, and still, you remain in a hole.
All the chants of “MVP!” and all the songs of praises, they are all, for now, songs for Sisyphus.