What Nikola Jokic’s highlight score over LeBron James says about where the Nuggets are headed

Michael Malone said Nikola Jokic will tell his grandchildren about the play one day.

Of course, at 22 years old, the Nuggets rising star center isn’t thinking much about the children born of the children he doesn’t even have yet.

Steve Nehf, The Denver Post

Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic shoots a jump hook over Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the third quarter at the Pepsi Center March 22, 2017.

And if Jokic’s highlight post-move score over LeBron James during the Nuggets 126-113 victory over the defending champion Cavaliers on Wednesday night was “a defining play,” as his coach suggested, Jokic isn’t ready to catalog his big shot over the world’s best player in those terms just yet.

“I just tried to score,” Jokic said. “I didn’t think about whether it was him or whatever. I just wanted to score. That’s it.”

Jokic’s reaction after the play was the better tell of how big the moment was for a young player challenging one of the faces of the sport.

With less than three minutes left in the third quarter and the Nuggets leading by 14 points, Jokic caught the ball, a few feet outside the paint, with James guarding him. Jokic first looked for a cutter, but when James threw his arms high into the passing lane, Denver’s center turned his back and went to work.

First, Jokic faked a spin over his right shoulder. Then came three dribbles toward the center of the paint as he kept James on his hip. When Jokic picked up the ball, he faked slightly to his right once again before quickly spinning into the shot. James didn’t bite on on the fake. He stretched his hand to contest, but the four-time MVP couldn’t reach the high release point. The shot fell through the net, and the crowd roared.

Jokic goes to WORK 👀 pic.twitter.com/6r7igznx28

— NBA.com (@NBAcom) March 23, 2017

“Everybody was excited to see it,” said Kenneth Faried , who supplied his own highlight reel while scoring 17 points in the victory. “Everybody wanted to see The Joker-LeBron matchup. Jokic got the best of him in that matchup up, and it pretty much helped the crowd erupt.”

One of the first memorable highlights in the career of Hall of Fame guard Allen Iverson was a nasty crossover he dropped on Michael Jordan. Iverson nailed the jumper as arguably the greatest player of all-time was left behind, and the play went viral before viral was even a thing.

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Jokic posting up James and finishing with a hook shot the Cavs star couldn’t possibly reach may not have been Iverson over Jordan, but it was Jokic’s crowd-matching roar as he turned and headed back down the floor indicated that it was at the very least a special play in a special sophomore season for one of the NBA’s top rising stars.

“For him to go down there and get that bucket, you could feel the energy from the crowd,” Nuggets guard Gary Harris said. “Everyone felt it.”

Malone felt pride. It’s no secret the Nuggets coach is fond of James, whom Malone spent five seasons coaching as an assistant in Cleveland. So watching his best player challenging James was a play that will stick out among the thousands in an 82-game season.

“The crowd erupted in celebration because it was a defining moment for Nikola,” Malone said. “He has scored on some other players, but that’s one of the best players in the NBA, who can guard positions one through five. He’s a tough kid from Serbia. He’s not scared. LeBron is a great player, a great competitor. But Nikola is not going to back down from anybody.”

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