One of the best things about the NBA playoffs is that casual fans who don't pay much attention during the regular season are exposed to teams and players they don't often get to see. The Denver Nuggets are perhaps the best example of that in the 2019-20 postseason, as their improbable run to the Western Conference finals has showcased the greatness of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic to even the most unfamiliar fans.
"I've never watched the Joker before," my friend wrote. "He's a very weird matchup."
I assumed he was talking about Jokic, and not Joaquin Phoenix's Oscar-winning turn as the iconic Batman villain. Indeed he was, and it stood out to me how a person who had not seen Jokic play could immediately identify his unorthodox abilities. Those abilities are what made him an unwinnable matchup for the heavily favored Clippers, and what LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers will have to subdue if they're going to advance to the NBA Finals. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel, who will be tasked with drawing up a game plan to limit the 7-foot Serbian with point guard skills, called Jokic "one of the most unique players in the world," especially at the center position.
"He basically can hurt you in all ways," Vogel said of Jokic on Wednesday. "He can hurt you at the 3-point line, in the pocket playing the 4-on-3 game, in the post, and obviously with his passing. They understand his abilities up there, passing the basketball, and do a great job speed-cutting through the lane. They make it very difficult to guard."
As with any superstar, the game plan is generally to mix up your looks. Once a player of Jokic's caliber gets comfortable, they're almost impossible to stop -- Vogel has witnessed that firsthand with LeBron. So the Lakers will likely vary their defensive approach, with a combination of James, Davis, Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris getting turns guarding Jokic. Vogel also said that he'll likely return to playing big men JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, who were forced out of the rotation against the small lineups of the Houston Rockets.
"It does make this series a little different -- a lot different, actually -- than last series, in terms of how much we'll use our centers," Vogel said. "I don't want to get too much into detail, but obviously we're gonna be the L.A. Lakers, who we've been all year. We adjusted to a small-ball team last series, but I would expect us to return to form."
So the Lakers have options -- always a good thing -- but Jokic has shown this postseason that he is essentially matchup-proof. Accused of being too unselfish at times throughout his career, Jokic has been assertive throughout the postseason, bumping his scoring average from 19.9 points in the regular season to 25.4 in the playoffs. One of the biggest difference-makers has been his 3-point shooting, where he's improved from 31 percent on 3.5 attempts per game in the regular season, to 44 percent on six attempts per game in the playoffs.
The Clippers had absolutely no answers, with Jokic torching virtually every defender they sent his way. Take a look at the numbers, via NBA.com.
|Jokic vs. LAC defenders||MIN||PTS||AST||FG%|
Jokic's versatility allows him to take advantage of different types of defenders in different ways. Against Clippers center Ivica Zubac, a more traditional big man with size but not necessarily lateral quickness, Jokic went to work as a screener in pick-and-pops with Murray. With Zubac dropping in coverage, Jokic was left open to let it fly from distance. Jokic made 6-of-15 3-pointers in the series with Zubac guarding him, according to NBA.com.
Jokic did the same thing against the smaller Montrezl Harrell when he dropped against the pick-and-roll, and Jokic could also abuse Harrell in the post. Watch here as he uses his quickness to beat Harrell with a spin move, then uses his strength advantage to finish through contact.
He also exploited Harrell by taking the simplest approach against a shorter defender -- facing up and shooting over the top.
The Clippers occasionally tried to send smaller, quicker defenders at him like JaMychal Green, Marcus Morris, Paul George, and even Kawhi Leonard. That's when Jokic's passing and playmaking take center stage, as he finds cutters with his clear line of sight that comes from having smaller defenders on him. As you can see, even when the Clippers send a double-team, Jokic doesn't panic and waits for the play to unfold before hitting Jerami Grant on a cut.
"He plays under control, doesn't let anybody rush him," Howard said on Wednesday. "He gets to his spots, he makes plays for his teammates, he rebounds. He does a little bit of everything. He's a complete player, and I love playing against him."
We'll see if Howard still loves playing against him a few games into the series. If Howard and McGee aren't effective guarding Jokic, which is a real possibility, Vogel could revert to the same rotation he finished the Houston series with. That lineup with Davis at center might actually give them the best chance, but the Lakers will need to be disciplined, communicative and smart when it comes to defending Jokic.
"We don't really play small," Kuzma said on Wednesday. "I don't really understand the logic of people saying we play small because our 'small' is still A.D., 6-11, 7-foot, me in there, 6-9, Kieff, 6-9, LeBron, 6-9. I mean, that's kind of still big, but we're just athletic and mobile, and we've got high IQs out there."