Through some fortunate twist of fate, the Celtics and Nuggets, holders of the best records in the East and West, respectively, found themselves doing battle on New Year’s Day. Considering their provisional standings, their best players, not surprisingly, likewise headed pundits’ lists for Most Valuable Player. Which, in a nutshell, was why all and sundry took notice of proceedings; a humdinger looked to be in the offing.
As things turned out, the Nuggets had little trouble asserting themselves at the Ball Arena. Never mind that the visiting Celtics carried a four-match win streak, including convincing turns against the highly regarded Bucks and Clippers. The opening minutes were tight, but they managed to create separation midway through the first quarter, and from then on coasted to their eighth triumph in the last 10 contests.
Needless to say, much of the conversation after the match focused on yet another outstanding effort from reigning MVP awardee Nokila Jokic. The Nuggets’ principal playmaker put up 30 (on 13 attempts from the field), 12, and 12 in 32 minutes of action, during which time they were 14 points better than the Celtics. Clearly, he didn’t just post his second straight triple-double and ninth of the season. He stamped his class en route to victory, just like in every other time he hit the milestone.
For longtime habitues of the sport, Jokic represents the rare breed of scorer who likes to pass first. If there is anything to criticize about his game, it’s that he takes fewer shots than he should in the face of his status as a unique offensive threat. That said, there can be no doubting his place among the league elite. In fact, he’s pacing the likes of the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic, the Nets’ Kevin Durant, and the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Nuggets head coach Michael Malone may be biased, but he’s right all the same. “If people’s reason for not giving Nikola a third MVP is because he’s already won two in a row, that’s lazy,” he was quoted by the Denver Post’s Mike Singer as saying in the aftermath of the positive start to 2023. The flipside is that voter fatigue is real; it’s why, in the National Basketball Association’s 76 years of existence, only Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird have claimed the accolade three seasons in a row.
Will Jokic do what such notables as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James could not? The answer depends on how the panel of broadcasters and sportswriters slated to vote will go. He will have to buck the odds, though; after all, not a single one of the league’s general managers polled in the offseason answered yes. Not that he cares. Bottom line, he has succeeded precisely because he operates at a speed no one else can approximate.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and human resources management, corporate communications, and business development.