Remember when there were concerns about Nikola Jokic at the start of the season? That feels like an eternity ago.
In his second postseason, Jokic is cementing his place among the game's elite with another historic run. In Denver's first-round series with the Utah Jazz, he took a backseat to Jamal Murray and still wound up averaging 26.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game. He then gave the LA Clippers everything they could handle in the second round, posting averages of 24.4 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game.
Jokic capped off that series with the Clippers with a 16-point, 22-rebound, 13-assist triple double to knock off a team many - myself included - expected to win the title this season and put the finishing touches on yet another 3-1 comeback, earning the Nuggets a date with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
There's a lot about Jokic that makes him the unique player that he is, but there are three particular possessions from these playoffs that shine a light on how he's able to consistently carve up the best defences in the league.
Let's start with this possession:
This is pretty simple: Jokic is one of the most dominant post-up scorers in the NBA.
According to NBA.com, Jokic averaged 5.1 points per game in the post during the regular season, putting him behind only Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid (9.1) and San Antonio Spurs big man LaMarcus Aldridge (5.6) for most in the league. He scored at a rate of 1.06 points per post-up possession, which was good enough for him to rank in the 86th percentile in efficiency.
Jokic hasn't been quite as efficient in these playoffs - he ranks in the 46th percentile with 0.92 points per post-up possession entering the Western Conference Finals - but he's still generating around a fifth of his offence in the post, once again putting him near the top of the league.
The thing with Jokic is that he can score against anyone on the block, even a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert. Give him space, and he'll face up to the basket and knock down a midrange jumper. (If you don't know about the Sombor Shuffle, you're missing out). Press up on him, and he'll pirouette his way to the basket with the sort of grace you wouldn't expect to see from someone his size. Play him straight up, and he'll get his defender off balance with a variety of fakes, sometimes stringing them together in a way that would make Hakeem Olajuwon proud.
So what do you do? Option No. 1 is to live with Jokic getting his, which is ... risky. Option No. 2 is to throw a double at him, which is ... equally as risky.
That brings us to the second possession:
A couple of things.
First, if centres have a hard enough time guarding Jokic in the post, forwards like Marcus Morris Sr. have little-to-no chance. The Nuggets do a good job of getting Jokic to move around in the halfcourt, usually having someone like Murray set a screen for him early in the possession, both as a means to get him as close to the basket as possible by having his defender fight through a screen and in an effort to get a smaller defender switched onto him.
Second, notice how calm Jokic is despite having two defenders draped all over him, one of which is Paul George, who has long been one of the most disruptive defenders in the league. It helps that he's 7-feet tall because he can see over the top of most defenders and him holding the ball behind his head makes it difficult for anyone to get a hand on it, but to deal with that much pressure for as long as he did and still make a pinpoint pass is not easy.
Also, did you catch the pass fake? It's subtle, but it was enough to get Kawhi Leonard and Ivica Zubac to bite, opening up the paint for Jerami Grant.
Nasty, nasty stuff.
That brings us to the third and final possession:
It's a carbon copy of the last possession, only this time it leads to a 3-pointer for Gary Harris.
This is what separates Jokic from other players at his position. A lot of centres are formulaic with the passes they make. If this is happening, that means this, this or this is open. Jokic is not. He reads and reacts to the defence in real time, much like LeBron James, Luka Doncic or Chris Paul do. It's not only that he can make a crosscourt pass to a shooter while being pressured by two defenders that makes him an all-time passer, it's that he can deliver it at the perfect time - in this case, as soon as Lou Williams commits to switching onto Grant to prevent him from getting the same dunk he did on the previous possession.
A second sooner, and Williams wouldn't have had to switch onto Grant. A second later, and Morris may have very well closed out on Harris in time to contest his shot.
In other words, Jokic doesn't just make the right pass, he picks teams apart with his passing, all of which is weaponized by his ability to punish pretty much anyone in the post. Going back to what I said before, you're damned if you do double him, but you're damned if you don't.
The Jazz and Clippers learned all of that the hard way. Now it's on the Lakers to see if they can crack the code.
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