NBA Playoffs 2019: Blazers go all-in on slowing down Nuggets' Nikola Jokic, but at what cost?

Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts praised his team's defense against Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic on Wednesday. He told reporters that Enes Kanter and Zach Collins did a good job individually and the Blazers collectively didn't allow Jokic to have the same sort of freedom that he had when the ball was in in his hands in the series opener. 

"I thought we pressured him a little bit more," Stotts said after Portland's 97-90 win. "We didn't give him the clean looks that he had in Game 1."

Blazers star Damian Lillard concurred: "I thought we did really well. Just making him work. Picking him up higher so he's not just walking into their offense. When he's dribbling the ball up, pick him up, make him work, don't allow him to just move at his own pace and play comfortable."

Lillard said they wanted Jokic to "see bodies" when he was on the block, they had "active hands" when he tried to make plays and they contested his shots at the rim. It all sounded good, given the result and the stats: Two days after scoring 37 points on 11-for-18 shooting, Jokic only had 16 points on 7-for-17 shooting, thanks largely to their steady diet of double-teams.

When Jokic arrived at the podium, however, he did not have much to say about Portland's defense. He said it was "a weird game for us" and the Blazers were capable of playing better, too.

"They were coming on my post-ups," Jokic said. "But that doesn't really change how we play."

Nikola Jokic
Portland converges on Nikola Jokic. USATSI

On the Lowe Post podcast on Wednesday, ESPN's Zach Lowe talked to Stan Van Gundy about coaching against LeBron James. A decade ago in the Eastern Conference finals, Van Gundy's Orlando Magic beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games. Lowe called it one of James' best series ever from a statistical perspective: He averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists in 44.3 minutes.  

"He was fabulous," Van Gundy said. "But, you know, part of that was our plan."

It would be an overstatement to say that Van Gundy's coaching staff was happy about James putting up those numbers. They were surely thrilled, though, that the Cavs shot 32.3 percent from 3-point range. James may have been fabulous offensively, but not a single one of his teammates was. 

"Particularly at that point in his career, we always chose to try to make him score the ball rather than pass it," Van Gundy said. "Our feeling was that the only way that those other guys had enough to beat us over a seven-game series -- at least we hoped -- was if LeBron just created wide-open looks for them and they could knock down shots. And we wanted to take that away. 

"And so we played the entire series on him one-on-one. We helped obviously on drives, but there was not a time in that game where we double-teamed him, blitzed him on a pick-and-roll, any of that. You put two guys on the ball against him, and he's just, he's a genius. He's going to pick you apart. And we didn't want that to happen."

Nikola Jokic
The Blazers apparently don't want to let Nikola Jokic go off again. USATSI

Jokic is not LeBron, but their minds present the same conundrum for opposing coaches. At 24, in his fourth season, Jokic has already established himself as the best passing center in NBA history. Bill Walton compared him to Steve Nash. Facing elimination a week ago, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich decided to treat Jokic the way he used to treat Nash in the playoffs, playing him straight up and trying to stop him from creating easy looks for others. Jokic scored 43 points, but the Spurs won by 17.

San Antonio did not end up winning the series, illustrating that there is no correct answer for how to defend a superstar that can dominate a game with his scoring and his passing. On Wednesday, Portland did not shut Jokic down; it just forced him to pass, which can be extremely dangerous. 

At no point during the game did I think that it had figured the Nuggets out, and I have to admit that I laughed at a few different parts of the post-game press conference. Sure, the Blazers applied more pressure to Jokic. I suppose they did have active hands. All the extra attention they paid to him, however, resulted in a torrent of open 3-pointers. Denver missed almost all of them. 

Just imagine how much more sense this video (set to "Go with the Nuggets," the team's official theme song for several years after the 1976 NBA-ABA merger) would make if Jokic's teammates had helped him out:

A few plays that weren't included in there:

  • Gary Harris' missed open 3 after Portland triple-teamed Paul Millsap
  • Monte Morris' missed open 3 after it double-teamed Mason Plumlee
  • Malik Beasley's missed open 3 after two Blazers followed a cutting Harris into the paint
  • Millsap's turnover as the ball slipped out of his hands after Jokic passed to him, wide open under the basket

Denver is strange because it is not a poor shooting team, but it is an inconsistent one. On certain nights, it can make the "live by the 3, die by the 3" crowd seem smart. Coach Michael Malone told reporters that he put more emphasis on attacking the rim in the second half because the 3s weren't falling, and he noted that the Spurs only stopped double-teaming Jokic after the Nuggets made 15 3s in Game 3, 15 3s in Game 4 and 14 3s in Game 5. They made six of their 29 attempts on Wednesday.

"[We played] really good defense," Malone said. "We outrebounded 'em by 11. We didn't get hurt with points off turnovers. Just couldn't make a damn shot."

It would be risky for the Blazers to bet on that happening again.

CBS Sports Writer

James Herbert is somewhat fond of basketball, feature writing and understatements. A former season-ticket holder for the expansion Toronto Raptors, Herbert does not think the NBA was better back in the... Full Bio

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