CHICAGO - When Nikola Jokic first came to America in 2015, about a year after the Denver Nuggets took him as their 41st pick in the 2014 NBA draft, the then 20-year old Serbian was horrifyingly over the calorie cap.
At slightly over 300 pounds, he didn't look like All-Star material, more like starting center for the weight watchers Mythical Five.
By Jokic's own admission, the expanding waistline was caused by a hearty appetite for meats, including his country's famous Cevapi. And here's the kicker: besides an unforgiving passion for chewing all things edible, Jokic loves Coca Cola too much.
"Three liters a day," he told Zach Lowe of ESPN.
There was obviously a lot of work needed to unearth the Adonis buried beneath the fat. So Nuggets conditioning coaches Steve Hess and Felipe Eichenberger put Jokic on a healthy diet and twice-a-day workout sessions.
The result is the emergence of a 7-foot, 250-pound lean, mean, fighting machine.
Although he now playfully complains about the "bland" food he nourishes his body with. Nikola can't complain about the trade-off.
Way much lighter now, and impossibly more nimble, Jokic has maximized his natural gifts and parlayed these into his first All-Star nod, thanks to a stellar 2018-19 season where he averaged 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per in 80 games.
There is a reason why the No. 2 Nuggets are leading the third-seeded Trail Blazers, 3-2, in their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals.
Nikola Jokic is crushing Portland with the weight of his all-around brilliance.
Through five games, Jokic has amassed a total of 132 points, 72 rebounds, and 44 assists, which translates to 26.4 points, 14.4 rebounds and 8.8 dimes per. Most importantly, he is shooting 52.6 percent from the field, 47 percent from 3-land, and 83.8 percent from the free throw stripe.
Endurance and stamina used to be an issue with The Joker. Not anymore. He didn't run out of gas in the seven-game Spurs series and he is logging 43.2 minutes per game against the Blazers.
Even when they were plowing through the West like Kublai Khan's troops during the regular season, the Nuggets were constantly doubted.
They don't have a star. They're a small market. They have no experience, no pedigree.
Blah. Blah. Blah.
Let me assure you. The Nuggets are as real as the Grand Canyon.
They're not an army of one. They're a cavalry, a gallant group of 13 guys, playing for and with each other, pulling on one rope, and devotedly taking orders from one of the brilliant coaching minds in the NBA today - Michael Malone.
Led by superstar Damian Lillard and sharpshooter C.J. McCollum, the Blazers will be a tough out when the series resumes with Game 6 at the Moda Center in Portland in two days.
But make no mistake, Denver is going to the Western Conference finals.
It's destiny. It's Nikola Jokic.
In case you're wondering, sacrifice has it's rewards. After signing a rookie contract worth just $5.5 million for four years, Jokic is in the first year of a five-year max deal worth $148 million.
But the money only changed the cars he drives, the clothes he wears, and the house he lives in. He's the same friendly, likable star. One with quick feet, soft hands, and an indomitable will.
And yes, he now has a fat bank account.