DENVER — Nikola Jokic remembers feeling helpless on that April night in 2016.
The Denver Nuggets center was a rookie facing Tim Duncan, who was in his 19th and final NBA season. Duncan scored a season-high 21 points and left an unforgettable impression on the young Jokic.
“He could not move that much at that period,” Jokic said Monday. “But he gave me [an] easy . Like I did not touch him. I couldn’t do nothing.
“Like just for fighting for position, pivots, all kind of easy shots, finding the open space, setting a screen … you can, just watching him, learn a lot of things.”
Three years later, Jokic is using the type of versatility that would have made Duncan proud. As the Nuggets and Spurs head into the pivotal Game 5 on Tuesday tied at two games apiece, Jokic is averaging nearly a triple-double, with 20.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 9.3 assists in his first playoff series.
Jokic patiently handled double-teams Gregg Popovich sent at him as soon as he put the ball on the floor in Game 1. He became only the fourth player to record a triple-double in his first playoff game, with 10 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists.
In Game 4, he attacked single coverage and aggressively looked for his shot, finishing with 29 points.
Jokic’s success is thanks in large part to his deft footwork. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Duncan was Jokic’s favorite big to watch when it came to footwork in the post.
“I mean the guy is the best probably … two or three power forwards in the game, ever. Forever,” Jokic said. “And he won … five [NBA titles]?”
After shooting 51.1 percent from the field during the regular season, the 24-year-old Jokic is shooting 48.3 percent from the field in this series and 37.5 percent from 3-point range. He leads all players in the series with 37 assists.
“We talk about Nikola as an afterthought sometimes because a great player you expect that from him, and it is always about the other guys,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “But when you look at Nikola’s averaging a damn near triple-double in the playoffs. … For as young as he is, first time going through it, it really is remarkable.”
Malone says Jokic’s biggest leap has been on the defensive end, where he has taken on the challenge of guarding LaMarcus Aldridge, who is averaging 20.3 points and 9.0 rebounds — numbers slightly under his regular-season averages of 21.3 points and 9.2 rebounds.
Surely, Popovich will have some kind of wrinkle for the Nuggets and Jokic in Game 5.
“The chess match, he’s Bobby Fischer,” Malone said of Popovich. “He’s a savant.”
Three years after Jokic got a personal lesson on post play from Duncan, Popovich now has to find a way to slow down Jokic in order to advance in the postseason.
“Nobody is going to stop Nikola,” Popovich said after Game 3. “He’s such a great passer, you got to pick your poison. If you start doubling him everyplace, they are going to knock down those 3s and they’re great at it. So you just have to make some decisions in that regard and be kind of picky if you are going to go double.”