Nikola Jokic knows the Denver Nuggets shocked the world. "When we beat the Clippers, they were talking how the Clippers lost it," Jokic said the day before Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, presumably referring to the media. "They don't think about us." Jokic even thinks Denver shocked the team they just sent home.
"We kind of surprised the Clippers," he said.
Playoff basketball, however, is not merely a concentration contest. Typically, both teams are appropriately prepared and committed to carrying out its game plan, especially once it's conference finals time. I picked the Nuggets to win this series essentially because, the way they've been playing, they can adapt to any game plan the Lakers throw at them.
If Denver has a superpower, it is that there's always something it can turn to. Surviving a seven-game playoff series is an exercise in problem-solving. By coming back from 3-1 twice in three weeks, the Nuggets have earned endless praise for their grit and mental fortitude. That is deserved, but those qualities wouldn't have come out without their multifaceted attack.
Jokic has been more aggressive in the playoffs, and that has only served to make his passing game more devastating. Murray's historic first-round series against the Utah Jazz was powered by out-of-this-world shooting, but he helped Denver beat the Clippers even when he wasn't shooting that well. Their two-man game is almost unguardable, but let's say it's crunch time and Lakers coach Frank Vogel decides he wants to shut it down: LeBron James guards Murray, Anthony Davis guards Jokic.
This sounds like a solution. There might not be another pair of teammates in the league equally capable of switching against these particular players. But there is no rule that Denver must run a pick-and-roll or dribble-handoff with those two guys, and since both of them can shoot, one could go stand on the wing, 35 feet away from the basket, dragging one of the scariest help defenders in the league with him, while the Nuggets' other star handles the ball on the opposite side.
Jokic could go to the post or the elbow, with Murray spacing and three teammates conducting the normal symphony of inside-the-arc screening and cutting that forces defenses to make mistakes (and sometimes leads to baskets even without a mistake). Murray could run a pick-and-roll at Markieff Morris or Dwight Howard or Rajon Rondo, depending on who's on the court for Los Angeles, and create an advantage with relative ease. Denver could even run something for Michael Porter Jr., who can conjure offense out of thin air, especially when he knows James and Davis are preoccupied with Murray and Jokic.
If the Lakers play a traditional center, they are sacrificing their floor spacing and inviting Murray to attack him. If they don't, they are forcing Davis to expend energy guarding Jokic and taking away his ability to mess up Denver's off-ball stuff. A 2-3 zone seems like a logical wrinkle, but I'll bet it's much more effective when Jokic is on the bench. If you were to design a zone-resistant basketball player from scratch, he'd probably be a lot like Jokic -- a 7-footer who shoots like Dirk and passes like Magic.
The Nuggets oozed confidence as they came back in the second round. They know exactly who they are, and they've been improving their system bit by bit for years, through player development and roster additions. As the series went on, they zeroed in on the Clippers' weak spots without deviating from their identity, and they exploited weak defenders without falling into the stagnant muck of isolation. They'd done the same exact thing in the previous round.
"Since we were [down] 3-1 against Utah, I'm enjoying the whole journey," Jokic said. "Just playing free, playing loose, playing for each other, it's really, really nice to be part of this team."
Denver's system is built around the unique talents of Jokic, whose selfless approach to stardom naturally makes his teammates more dangerous. Just as it is difficult to guard an individual player who is effective driving right and left, a threat with and without the ball and equally comfortable as a scorer and a passer, it is tough to scheme for a team that can hurt you in a variety of ways. It is not an accident that the Nuggets believe they can beat anybody and take so much joy in each win.
"We want that feeling again, when we are playing free, playing for each other," Jokic said. "We are hungry [for] that feeling."