Why Nikola Jokic’s Game 5 evisceration of Rudy Gobert doesn’t have anything to

Nikola Jokic played about as close to a perfect basketball game as is humanly possible on Tuesday night, leading the Denver Nuggets to a Game 5 victory and 3-2 series lead over the Minnesota Timberwolves by dropping 40 points and 13 assists on 68% shooting (15 for 22).

It served as a reminder of a couple things.

First, Jokic, who is the first player in recorded history to account for 70-plus points of offense, via scoring and assists, in a playoff game without committing a single turnover, is the best player in the world and it’s not close. There’s an argument to be made that he’s the best offensive player ever.

Second, Rudy Gobert is not the best individual defender in the world. He’s not even the best individual defender on his own team. The operative distinction here is individual defender, because after Gobert was eviscerated by Jokic there is chatter that he shouldn’t have won Defensive Player of the Year.

I can understand the reaction. If you’re the DPOY, you are, in theory, the best defender in the league, and Gobert certainly didn’t look like that as Jokic was carving him up with the conscience of a sociopath. But that’s in theory. In reality, there have only been two DPOY winners this century to come from a team that finished outside the top five in defensive rating. You have to go back to Marcus Camby in 2007 to find the last one.

DPOY is a team award wrapped in individual packaging. Which is another way of saying Gobert deserved to win his fourth DPOY this season because he anchored the best defense in the league by a wide margin, and Jokic going 8-for-9 when being guarded by Gobert on Monday (and believe me, if you didn’t see it, it looked even worse than it sounds) doesn’t change that.

Regular-season defense is about consistency over a long schedule. A Gobert defense shows up at a high level every single night when one matchup runs into the next. Besides that, Gobert has never stood on the strength of his one-on-one defense. He’s a backstop. In fact, one of the biggest reasons the Timberwolves match up so well with the Nuggets is because Gobert doesn’t have to guard Jokic.

The fact is, whoever guards Jokic is going to get destroyed. You could bring back prime Tim Duncan and Jokic would chew him up like Shaq’s proverbial barbecued chicken. This is precisely the point. Whoever falls on the Jokic grenade is a wasted defender. With their two-big lineups, the Wolves can waste a Karl-Anthony Towns or Naz Reid on Jokic and actually free up Gobert to have a roving impact.

If and when Gobert ended up guarding Jokic straight up, he was always going to get cooked. You know who else would’ve gotten cooked by Jokic on Tuesday night? Whoever you think should’ve won DPOY instead. Tell me, who on earth could’ve defended whatever the hell this shot was better than Gobert?

Even against this kind of talent, Gobert has had his moments against Jokic in this series. This clip below from Game 1 is a monster play. What Gobert and the Wolves as a whole did to Jokic and the Nuggets in Games 1 and 2 wasn’t a figment of our imagination. It happened.

Instinctually, that is a Draymond Green-level play. As it would happen, at halftime on Tuesday, Green, the 2016-17 DPOY who’s working the TNT shift after the Warriors failed to make the playoffs, said this: “BBQ chicken is happening. … I’m a truth teller, and right now the truth is, Rudy Gobert don’t stand a chance against Joker.”

Terrific insight, Draymond. But I’ve got news for you: You wouldn’t have stood a chance either. I’d have to go back over some of the Warriors-Nuggets series of the past to see how Green fared; I’m sure he had his moments because he’s an all-time defender. But either way, that was a long time ago. None of that matters in 2024. In 2024, Jokic is unstoppable. I’ll say it again: 2024 Jokic is one of the greatest offensive players in history.

That might sound like a prisoner-of-the-moment take, but in fact the only prisoner-of-the-moment take is this Gobert nonsense. It’s a typical reaction rooted only in the most recent evidence. We do it all the time. When the Nuggets lost the first two games of this series, the whispers of whether Jokic deserved to win a third MVP this season were starting. Now the Wolves lose three straight, for the first time all season I might add, and suddenly Gobert is a fraud.

Just say what you really mean: that you’ve never liked Gobert and always believed he was an overrated analytical darling and now you’re cherry picking the most low-hanging validation. I find that amusing for several reasons, but I’ll start with the fact that Jokic was once regarded as some sort of an advanced-stat creation with less real-world application than his numbers would indicate.

Turns out, that was a pretty stupid idea. As it also turns out, Gobert came into Tuesday’s game holding opponents to a 43.8% conversion rate as a primary defender. That’s basically the exact same mark as Gobert put up in the regular season, which, among all players that defended at least 1,000 shots, was second only to Kristaps Porzingis.

For the most part, great players don’t get better in the postseason. The greatness lies in the fact that against the best competition, they don’t get worse. Staying the same is a big accomplishment in the postseason. Gobert was great in the regular season, and he’s been great in the postseason. He just finished smothering Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, if you’ve already forgotten, when the Suns were supposed to be able to play him off the court by going small. So much for that narrative. Gobert was legitimately not just defending, but disrupting Durant in space.

Problem is, Durant, for as great as he is, isn’t Jokic. Nobody is. “I think there’s things we should have done better, but there are also plays he made that I think are tough to counter,” Gobert said of Jokicand that is really all there is to say.

The fact that Gobert was not, and is not, a viable defensive counter to a player for which there is no viable defensive answer has nothing to do with Gobert’s 2024 DPOY award, which was very much deserved for the more zoomed-out criteria by which it is judged and the long-haul consistency it is meant to reflect.

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