The image could not have been more shocking. Nor significant to value the status that Nikola Jokic has reached in the NBA. Even beyond his two recent MVPs (this season Joel Embiid prevented him from matching Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird as the only ones with three in a row), there is the respect among the stars. And nobody like LeBron James in this era. Once the Lakers defeated in the Western Conference finals by an imposing 4-0, the King took his hat off to the Serbian giant.

And he did it literally minutes after the umpteenth recital. "We were talking in the dressing room and we came to the conclusion that they are one of the best teams we have faced in the last four years. They have intelligence, shooters, bench depth... And of course, a player like the Joker. You can't make mistakes with him, and even when you defend him well, he puts the ball behind his head like Larry Bird and gets it in. You can only do it like this..." And LeBron took off his cap.

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From tonight, Jokic faces the biggest challenge of an effervescent career in which he has been dominating the best league in the world even going to it without the proclamation of other pearls. Take the Nuggets to the first ring in their history, for which they will have to end the rebellion of Jimmy Butler's Heat: those of Miami have made history, from the play in to successively fleecing Antetokounmpo's Bucks, the Knicks and, finally, the Celtics with that recent seventh in the Garden as a warning to navigators. "To those who think this will be an easy series, I don't even know what to say anymore. It will be the biggest challenge of our lives," warns Mike Malone, coach of the undisputed favorite.

Jokic's heaven comes to his 28 years, so far back and those legends of the chubby boy, of photos that go viral, of his addiction to Coca Cola or his love for horses. He could well be named MVP again this year and could well become the first center in history to average a triple-double in the regular season: he was one breath away, in 9.8 assists (24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds ...), which shows something about which his coach, Malone, warned months ago. Far from the poses, selfishness and egos that surround him so much, he is "ashamed to receive so much attention."

Jokic, after receiving the MVP of the West.Ashley LandisAP

It may well be because of his European training. The Sombor went to the NBA from that talent factory managed by super agent Mizko Raznatovic, who fogueó him in the Mega Bemax (recently confessed that he could have ended up at Barça). He postponed his jump to the NBA one season after being chosen in the second round of the 2014 draft, with obvious problems of overweight then. And little by little he increased his performance until he spun the entire Colorado franchise on him. Beyond his superlative numbers and records, it is Jokic's brain that makes him an unfathomable player. "Play chess on the track. His knowledge of the game is incredible. He makes the right decision 99 times out of 100," his coach said. And, also, why not, his feet. "Nobody knows what he's going to do because his footwork is just incredible," Nuggets legend Alex English said.

After five seasons without playoffs, the rebirth of the Nuggets – whose history without finals revolved around figures such as David Thompson, English himself and Carmelo Anthony ... – began in 2019. Two seasons ago they clashed with the Lakers in the bubble in the West finals and last year in the first round against the champion Warriors. That burden fell on Jokic, who in 2022 extended his contract with Denver until 2028 with a salary of 61.9 million.

A few days ago a headline in the New York Times summed up the fullness of the pivot: "Nikola Jokic has mastered the art of slowness." In these playoffs, with a very short rotation in which again his best ally has been Jamal Murray, the Serbian has made the final leap in the absence of confirmation against the Heat. Now, in the 15 games played until the Finals he averages a triple double (29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists) with an astonishing 47.4% in three-pointers (some yes, as implausible as those LeBron remembered). And everything, even overcoming the controversies around him about the award or not of the MVP and incidents as strange as the push to the owner of the Suns during the conference semifinals and resolved by both after elegantly.

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