Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has a somewhat perfect nickname. "The Joker" doesn't often laugh, but that's all his opponents can do when he routinely scores over them with skills, fundamentals and almost no athleticism. Jokic poured in two triple-doubles in the NBA Finals, leading the Nuggets a 4-1 series win over the Miami Heat.
From being overweight and out of shape to becoming a two-time MVP, a lot of things don't add up in the career of Jokic. But for all that is unique in the Serbian's career, his performance serves as a reminder of one of the other specimens of basketball history: Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
The Magic of Nikola Jokic
On May 16, 1980, Los Angeles Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar torched the Philadelphia 76ers, scoring 40 points while grabbing 15 rebounds over the Eastern Conference champions. Yet, adversity struck the Lakers when Abdul-Jabbar suffered a bad ankle sprain during the Game 5 win, putting him on the bench with the Lakers up 3-2 in the series.
In his place, a young Laker named Magic Johnson was forced to step in to play center in Abdul-Jabbar's spot. There was only one glaring issue, however: Johnson was a point guard. He was a playmaker, not a post man.
At 6-foot-9, the untraditionally tall and athletic guard flipped the script — as Jokic has on many nights — trading passing for low baskets. Jokic does the opposite, playing like a point guard instead of a center.
With each passing minute in Game 6, Johnson only grew better. The Lakers were tied with the 76ers at halftime, but Los Angeles' point guard wouldn't allow Philadelphia to stay in the game. Johnson finished with 42 points, helping the Lakers to a 16-point win, a bigger margin than in Game 5 with a healthy Abdul-Jabbar.
May 16, 1980: With Kareem hurt for Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Sixers, rookie Magic Johnson starts at center & scores a Finals rookie record 42 points to lead the Lakers to the win and the championship. pic.twitter.com/XX4BkjW7Qz
— This Day In Sports Clips (@TDISportsClips) May 16, 2021
"You should've seen me in my room," Abdul-Jabbar said of Johnson's Game 6 performance. "Me and Cheryl screaming — on one foot hopping around my bedroom on one foot, screaming at the TV. You guys didn't let me down. You guys were amazing."
Battling the Philadelphia front court of Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones, Johnson still managed to snatch 15 rebounds. That tied for the most rebounds by a player all series, as Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar both grabbed 15 rebounds in Game 5.
"Philadelphia really didn't have a chance because they didn't understand how we were going to be coming at them," Abdul-Jabbar said about the series. "They didn't know that Magic had played forward most of his career. He was a guard-handling power forward, and that took everybody by surprise."
As the cherry on top, Johnson hit all 14 of his free throws, showing his ability to shoot the basketball at a high level in spite of his reputation as a pass-first player.
Rookie Magic Johnson starts at center and plays every position in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was hurt
A defining moment for one of the greats?pic.twitter.com/VQI564JZOi
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) January 6, 2020
In 2023, Jokic is a modern Johnson in this way, hitting almost 50% of his threes in the 2023 playoffs after hitting 38.3% over the regular season.
Missing his best teammate, Johnson put his team over the top with incredible versatility. Jokic has a similar ability. And the Nuggets will only be harder to stop in the future, as the other best players on the team — such as Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon — have been fully blossoming as well. Jokic's unique skillset was overlooked by most of the country the entire season, and it lacks a flashy element that attracts many to the television screen.
Shortly after the anniversary of Johnson winning the first of his five rings with the Lakers, NBA spectators must now wonder if the 28-year-old Jokic has a similar trajectory with a special skill set that is adaptable to his team's needs.
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