The mere suggestion stopped Nikola Jokic in his tracks.
No matter how well the Denver Nuggets have played, no amount of over-the-head passes or one-footed jumpers or 3-1 comebacks he put together could make him believe the question had an ounce of merit.
Because no matter how well Jokic has played, he isn’t doing anything on the court like LeBron James.
“Not even close,” Jokic said Thursday. “He’s the best player in the world. And … I’m not. There. That’s the difference.”
They are alike in one crucial way — the ability to control a game with their passing. And the Lakers keeping Jokic from doing so was a big reason they looked so dominant in Friday’s 126-114 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
The two couldn’t look more different. James is muscled and sleek, as physically imposing as he is skilled. Jokic, frankly, isn’t.
But when you listened to Frank Vogel and Michael Malone talk about their stars (and about the opposing ones) in the buildup to Game 1, some similarities were too obvious to ignore.
One player is a masterful passer with a complete bag of offensive skills, the ability to score from the post by using his size and to run an offense from the point thanks to his incredible passing. If he wants to score, he can, but he looks happiest on the court when he’s setting up teammates with laser-directed dimes.
And the other player is James.
At their best, both players conduct with their elite passing. Against the Clippers, Jokic carved up double teams by finding tight angles and whipping the ball to waiting teammates. He had 20 assists in the final two games as the Nuggets fought off elimination.
But a defense almost always would rather let a multifaceted player like James or Jokic get his points than get his teammates involved.
It’s why Jokic’s 21 points in 25 minutes Friday felt so inconsequential — they came with just two assists, the fewest he’s had all postseason. And it’s why James’ 15 points felt so much more important. They were paired with a dozen assists.
When it’s going right, the two players set the tone for their teams on offense.
Before Game 1, Malone called the decision to start Jokic and play through him midway through Jokic’s second year a franchise-defining choice.
“I can preach being a selfless team. I can preach being a team that makes plays for each other,” Malone said. “But when your best player does that naturally, and I think better than anybody in the league, it makes it that much easier for everyone else to fall in line and realize that we do have to trust the pass, we do have to play for each other. And he sets the example every day.”
The Lakers benefit from James’ same mind-set.
“It just creates the energy necessary to win,” Vogel said. “You know, when you have your best players that are willing passers, everybody likes playing with guys like that. So you know you’re going to get the ball. You know you’re going to get some equal opportunities. You run the floor harder. You compete on the glass harder. You defend harder. Like I said, it just affects the energy of the group.”
Friday, James fired passes everywhere to Lakers players ready to score. Even an errant one in the first half zipped right into the hands of Lakers assistant Phil Handy, who caught the ball and went right into a shooting motion from his seat on the bench.
“It’s probably the best part of the game, being able to get your teammates involved, putting the ball on time, on target, being able to see things happen before they happen, seeing the reward go to your teammates,” James said Thursday. “It’s just the best part of the game.”
And does he see the same in Jokic?
“Yes,” he said quickly. “It’s just infectious. When you have the best player on the team, one of the best players on the team, not really caring about himself at all for the better of the team, that sends a message to the rest of the group.”
Both players have had historic seasons passing the ball, Jokic averaging seven assists or more for the second straight year. Only two 7-footers have done that — him and Wilt Chamberlain.
And James, at age 35 and paired with the best finisher he’s ever played with in Anthony Davis, led the league with a career-high 10.2 assists per game.
For now, the comparisons are apt only in one small sliver of their games. It’s James’ longevity, his consistency and his winning that set him apart, and it’s where all comparisons stop.
“Him leading the NBA in assists, that’s telling you something,” Jokic said. “It’s not just from the post. It’s from everywhere. The one thing is you really have to defend him like he’s a train because he’s going to the basket every time. He can shoot. He can make plays. He can post up. And, he can really pass. He’s one complete player.
“He’s the best player in the world.”