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Nikola Jokic is about to win his third MVP award, and the Nuggets need him to play like it vs. Timberwolves

On Wednesday evening, Denver Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic is almost certainly going to be awarded the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award. On Friday, he better start playing like it.

His Nuggets are down 2-0 to the upstart Minnesota Timberwolves, having lost its first two games at home. Anthony Edwards has far and away looked like the best player in this series — and perhaps of any postseason series so far. All while Jokic, the cool, celebrated, can’t-be-troubled-to-worry big man has looked more demoralized than dominant.

Already, the Jokic-isn’t-as-good-as-they-say silliness has cropped back up. He is that good. He does qualify as a rising all-time great. He will worthily win a third MVP award on Wednesday night — I voted for him — after an absolutely stellar season. And he will certainly fall into that weird trap that sometimes arrives this time of the year when the NBA calendar often offers up an MVP award just as its winner struggles to live up to such lofty bona fides in the playoffs.

Last season, Joel Embiid brought home the hardware. And promptly disappeared at the end of the second round of the playoffs as his Sixers surrendered a 3-2 series lead to the Boston Celtics. Jokic himself won back-to-back MVPs while, in those postseasons, saw himself swept out of the second round and then bounced a year later in the first.

James Harden, Russell Westbrook and others have similarly been awarded this prize at about the time they were exiting the playoffs, the shine of their season stained by the bright lights of a playoff exit.

Such is how things go — the more you’re celebrated, the more criticism tends to find you. Fine. Fair enough. And perhaps an expectation that the Nuggets were going to waltz to the NBA Finals — from most of us and, by their dazed looks, the Nuggets themselves — was much too simplistic and optimistic a reading of the Western Conference.

But to go out like this, overwhelmed and outplayed and physically dominated against a suddenly rising star in Edwards and a historically inept organization like the Timberwolves? 

At least put up some fight, Denver.

Especially, Joker, as the newly minted MVP.

It’s not as if Jokic has soared while his team has let him down, like, say, LeBron James in the 2015 NBA Finals. Jokic has not covered himself in glory in this series at the exact time his team needs a leader to show his true value.

The Minnesota Timberwolves were designed by team president Tim Connelly to beat the Denver Nuggets team that, before this gig, Connelly himself also largely crafted, when he ran basketball operations there. That plan has worked. The length of Rudy Gobert, who missed Game 2, Karl-Anthony Towns, Naz Reid and the other members of the T-Wolves No. 1-ranked defense have utterly confounded Jokic and his teammates.

In Game 1, Jokic did go for 32 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. But he had to labor to get there, shooting just 11-of-25 with seven turnovers. The Nuggets lost, and in Game 2 the widely expected Joker-steps-up-and-sets-things-right performance did not materialize. He went just 5-for-13 for 16 points, and his team lost by a whopping 26 points.

His co-star, Jamal Murray, perhaps banged up, has certainly been poor. He’s 9-of-32 in these two games, including a brutal 3-of-18 in Game 2. That Minnesota utterly dominated the defending champs with their defense in Game 2 was evident in nearly every nanosecond of that game, including, ultimately, the season-low 80 points the Nuggets were able to scrape together.

The 2-0 series deficit is quite clearly less than ideal. The Game 2 beatdown is disconcerting. That Edwards has announced himself with such confident excellence in the playoffs makes the task seem that much more difficult. And having blown two home-court games to start this series indeed means there’s a deep hole Denver has to try and emerge from.

But the most troubling sign of Denver’s vulnerability was its panicked, immature and amateur-hour reaction to those struggles. Michael Malone went berserk in the first quarter of Game 2, the sign of a coach eerily — and oh so early on — unnerved by the opposition.

Murray also had multiple moments Monday that screamed panic. He made the same “money'” sign with his finger that got Gobert fined $100,000 earlier in the season. Then, later, Murray tossed a heat pack onto the floor during play.

Somehow, Malone wasn’t ejected, or even given a technical. And Murray wasn’t suspended. The NBA instead announced Tuesday he too would face a $100,000 fine, a paltry sum compared to the suspension that seemed appropriate.

But the message from the Nuggets was clear: We’re shook.

Even Jokic has seemed overwhelmed by the T-Wolves. After Game 1, asked how he could deal with Minnesota’s size, he suggested a clone of himself would help. Not great.

Then, after the Game 2 humiliation, Jokic was asked how the Nuggets would respond in Game 3. Jokic was not exactly brimming with confidence: “I don’t know,” he told reporters. “We will see.”

Here’s a solution, a response, a plan: Let the MVP play like one. Let’s see that.

Jokic is still one of the best players on earth, perhaps its finest. That won’t change if the Nuggets lose this series. But narratives are strange things, and an insouciant abdication in the second round of the playoffs will open the floodgates for Jokic haters, doubters and now-dormant I-told-you-so-ers.

But the point remains the same. The man is about to win his third MVP, but if he doesn’t start playing like one that award is going to feel more tainted and suspect than it should. 

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