The Miami Heat have tough defensive personnel and experience with a variety of strategies. None of it could bother Nikola Jokic.
With all this talk of Nikola Jokic and Joker’s and whatnot, I’m reminded of the medieval equivalent of a joker: a jester.
And back in the day, jesters had this luxury known as “jester’s privilege” that enabled them to say/mock anything/anyone they pleased because their words were deemed to be meaningless and held no value.
That’s how I feel about the teams that try to defend Jokic. They can do anything they want against him because none of it matters. None of it can stop him. The defensive strategies are all meaningless.
Take Game 1 of the NBA Finals, for instance, where Jokic took just 12 shots in 40 minutes of action yet somehow managed to become just the second player in NBA history to post a triple-double in his Finals debut en route to a 104-93 victory over the Miami Heat. It’s safe to say that, in that game, he made the Eastern Conference Champions look like the laughingstock of the town square.
On the surface, it would seem like the most obvious solution to the Jokic problem would be Bam Adebayo. He was voted Second Team All-Defense this year, and he is the Heat’s best defender. However, Jokic has a cool two inches and 30 pounds of size on him, and as a result, he’s able to dwarf one of the largest humans on the planet.
Some could chalk this up to a flukey performance, but Jokic has a history of giving Adebayo the business. In the last two seasons (four games), Jokic has shot 17-of-27 (63 percent) from the floor when he’s been guarded by Adebayo (per NBA.com).
Okay, so why not try putting Cody Zeller on him? He’s just as tall as Jokic (6-foot-11). The problem there is while Jokic may big compared to all the positions in the league, he’s actually quite quick for someone his size. And because of that, true, stone-footed bruisers like Zeller stand no chance of staying in front of him.
If Adebayo is too small to bang with Jokic, that likely disqualifies Jimmy Butler, Caleb Martin, or any of the Heat’s other forwards from trying to guard him in isolation. And if Zeller is too slow, the gray-bearded Kevin Love probably won’t fare too much better, either.
So, the next logical choice is to send multiple defenders his way by either fully committing to a double team or showing extra help.
As many of you are surely aware, the tradeoff to allocating extra resources toward stopping one player is that it leaves another player(s) on the floor open. The good news is that the tradeoff is only realized if the player you are doubling is good enough to pinpoint the weaknesses in your defense when you send that extra help. Let’s see if Jokic can do that:
You knew that was coming.
One of the best publicly-available measures of a player’s passing ability is Ben Taylor’s Passer Rating metric (an estimate of a player’s passing ability on an ‘approximately’ 1-10 scale). Guess where Jokic ranked among all players in the NBA during the regular season in that metric? First, with a Passer Rating of 9.8. Guess where Jokic ranks among all players in the NBA during the playoffs in that metric? Oh yeah, also first, with a Passer Rating of 9.8.
Jokic is not only an elite passer as it pertains to centers. He’s an elite passer. Period.
To summarize, you can’t single-cover Jokic because he’ll just score all over you. And you can’t send extra help because he’ll just find the player you left open, and they’ll score all over you.
So, what do you do now? For most teams, you just keep oscillating between those two tactics, make changes around the margins, and hope and pray that the Monstars show up to zap him of all his talent.
But the Heat aren’t most teams. They have an alternative pitch they can throw at Jokic that he’s hardly ever seen. They have their exotic Heat zone. It looks like they aren’t jesters after all.
Oh wait, Jokic can just pierce their zone by going in the middle, catching a pass, and immediately dismantling the coverage with his passing or his pristine midrange touch (60.3 percent, 100th percentile per Dunks & Threes).
This same unsolvability shows up in his two-man tango with Jamal Murray. In Game 1, Miami tried damn near every main coverage in the book. But it didn’t matter. The tandem still had them looking silly.
When they defended the action in a deep drop (first clip in the montage below) to take away Jokic’s threat as a roller, Murray would just burn them with his pull-up daggers. When Murray hit enough of those jumpers that he started attracting extra attention (second clip), he’d flip the ball back to Nikola Nowitzki for an open trey (38.3 percent shooter in the regular season, 71st percentile league-wide). When Miami tried to defang the matchup by switching it (third clip), Jokic would get the ball in the post and go back to the school of dwarfing giants. And if the Heat tried to get whacky with their zone (fourth clip), Murray would get the ball to Jokic in the middle, and you already know what happens when he gets it there.
As we said, Jokic only took 12 shots in the game. But between his field goals, free throws, and assists, he contributed to 58 of Denver’s 104 points in Game 1 (56 percent). That says nothing of all the shots he created for others by just being on the court (aka his gravity).
After the game, Jokic was seen smiling and laughing. It’s because he’d just witnessed the Heat’s defensive options for slowing him down. And they succeeded in making him laugh. But the catch is he wasn’t laughing with them. He was laughing at them.
He was laughing at them because they thought it was possible to stop him. They thought it was possible to stop the best basketball player on the planet.
Check out The Step Back for more news, analysis, opinion and unique basketball coverage. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Instagram and subscribe to our daily email newsletter, The Whiteboard.