Nikola Jokic isn’t just acing his playoff debut—he’s playing better than he ever has before. The Nuggets center earned MVP consideration for carrying an injury-ravaged team to the no. 2 seed in the Western Conference during the regular season, but his averages in every major statistical category are up in the playoffs. His numbers over the past seven games—27 points on 50.7 percent shooting, 11.4 rebounds, and 8.0 assists—are as good as any player in the league. Jokic has always been a transcendent passer. The big change over the past two weeks is how much he’s looking for his own shot. He has come to learn what most NBA stars discover about themselves early on: He can score at will whenever he wants to. Jokic, who is still only 24 years old, is having a superstar moment. He is only scratching the surface of what he could become.
Jokic gets better with every game. He opened his first-round series against the Spurs with a subpar game by his standards: 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting, 14 rebounds, and 14 assists. He wasn’t as aggressive as he needed to be, and the Nuggets lost 101-96 at home. He’s an unselfish player who always looks to make the extra pass, but sometimes the most unselfish thing a player can do is score. Denver is at its best when its star is making the defense adjust to him instead of taking what it gives him. San Antonio had no one who could guard him: LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl took turns on Jokic over the course of the series, and neither could do anything to bother his shot. It didn’t take him long to realize it. He averaged 19.7 field goal attempts over the final six games, carrying his team to victory.
His most memorable game came in a loss. The Nuggets had a chance to close out the Spurs on the road in Game 6, and Jokic put together a performance for the ages, with 43 points on 19-of-30 shooting, 12 rebounds, and nine assists. There isn’t much the defense can do to stop him when he’s looking to score. At 7-foot and 250 pounds, Jokic is an excellent shooter with a soft touch (56.9 percent from 2 on 11.7 attempts per game, 82.1 percent from the free throw line on 4.4 attempts per game) who can shoot over the top of nearly every defender in the league. Typical defensive strategies don’t work against him. He’s a mismatch nightmare. He can bring the ball up the court himself and dribble into a shot from anywhere on the floor while still being able to bully smaller defenders in the paint.
The physical archetype necessary to stop Jokic is incredibly rare. A defender would need the length to cover up his shot, the strength to prevent him from establishing deep post position, and the quickness to stay in front of him if he puts the ball on the floor. Rudy Gobert, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is the only player in the NBA who checks all those boxes. At 7-foot-1 and 245 pounds with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, Gobert is longer and quicker than Jokic while still being able to wrestle with him inside. The Jazz center has an 8-3 career record against Jokic and has held him to 12.4 points per game in those contests. Neither the Spurs nor the Blazers have anyone like Gobert.
Jokic has carried his dominance over to the second round. He was dominant in Game 1 of his second-round series with Portland on Monday, with 37 points on 11-of-18 shooting, nine rebounds, and six assists. Enes Kanter and Meyers Leonard have less of a chance of guarding him than Aldridge and Poeltl. Even Jusuf Nurkic, who is missing the playoffs with a broken leg, wouldn’t have made a difference. The two big men used to battle each other every day in practice in Denver, and Jokic knows exactly how to score on Nurkic. He had 40 points on 15-of-23 shooting, 10 rebounds, and eight assists on him in a game in January. The only adjustment that Blazers head coach Terry Stotts can make is to send more help toward Jokic and dare some of the Nuggets’ inconsistent shooters to knock down open 3s.
The pressure that this version of Jokic puts on the defense makes everyone around him better. He has great chemistry with Jamal Murray in the pick-and-roll, and Murray played off Jokic to finish with 23 points on 8-of-15 shooting with eight assists in Game 1 against Portland. The easiest way to defend the pick-and-roll is to switch the screen, but that strategy won’t work against Jokic because he can score so easily over smaller defenders. It’s the reverse of the dilemma that Houston creates in the pick-and-roll between James Harden and Clint Capela. Most defenses don’t want to switch a bigger and slower defender on Harden, which creates openings for Capela to dive to the rim and catch lobs. Murray can get around a Jokic screen and cause havoc because the defense doesn’t want to leave his big man.
The best way to counter Jokic is to attack him on defense. San Antonio couldn’t do it. The Spurs run a post-heavy offense built around two traditional big men (Aldridge and Poeltl) and two wings (DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay) who shoot midrange jumpers. Jokic was in his element in such an old-school game. He doesn’t fit the stereotype of a skilled European big man afraid of contact. Jokic did just enough to survive against Aldridge and Poeltl inside. He doesn’t have the length or athleticism to be a traditional rim protector, but he’s a smart player who plays positionally sound defense in the paint.
Jokic will never be great on that end of the floor. The goal is for him to do just enough so that he can make up the difference on offense.
That will be harder against Portland. Denver could drop Jokic back in the paint in the pick-and-roll and concede long 2s against San Antonio. That strategy won’t work against Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, elite pick-and-roll guards who shot Oklahoma City out of the playoffs in the first round. Both can dribble into shots from well behind the 3-point arc, which puts Jokic in a tough position. Jokic doesn’t have the speed to challenge their shot so far from the basket and still keep them in front of him. The Nuggets didn’t have an answer for Lillard in Game 1. He had 39 points on 12-of-21 shooting, and the defensive attention that he commanded opened things up for Kanter, who had 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting. This series looks like it will be a shootout. Neither team can stop the other.
Jokic’s inability to defend pull-up 3s is the same problem that has killed traditional big men like Gobert and Steven Adams in the playoffs. But there is one key difference between Jokic and his peers: He can get those points back. Gobert and Adams can’t score 40 in a playoff game. They can’t help their teams in a series if they are turned into defensive liabilities. Even big men who can defend on the perimeter, like Capela, can be less valuable than small-ball 5s like P.J. Tucker if they can’t stretch out the defense or score over smaller defenders. The math has become cruel for 7-footers. Joel Embiid is a dominant interior scorer and a far better interior defender than Jokic, but he doesn’t have the same perimeter game on offense. It’s hard to win scoring 2s in the post if you are giving up 3s on offense.
The same rules don’t necessarily apply to Jokic. He’s a legitimate point center who is averaging 8.8 assists per game on only 1.8 turnovers while shooting 37.1 percent from 3 on 4.4 attempts per game in the playoffs, something no other player in NBA history has ever done. His statistical impact is closer to James Harden’s and Steph Curry’s than a traditional center’s—and Harden and Curry are targeted all the time on defense. Their teams live with it because of what they provide on the other end. That’s why it’s so important for Jokic to hunt for his own shot in the playoffs. An elite team that runs enough pick-and-rolls at him is going to score, just like they will against Curry or Harden. The only chance for the Nuggets to win is for Jokic to balance that out with monster offensive numbers.
Jokic’s star is rising; regardless, Denver has a firm ceiling this season. Golden State surrounds Curry with length and athleticism at every position to protect him on defense. That is the blueprint the Nuggets need to follow. They have too many holes on defense to be a serious contender. Their best perimeter defender is 6-foot-4 (Gary Harris), and they don’t have any wings taller than 6-foot-6. Their lack of length makes them vulnerable to players like Rodney Hood, a 6-foot-8 wing who exploded for 17 points on 5-for-10 shooting against them on Monday after averaging 3.2 points per game in the first round. They would have little chance of surviving either Harden or Durant in the Western Conference finals. The Nuggets will be an interesting position in the offseason. I would still consider pushing all my chips into the middle of the table and trade for Anthony Davis. A team with Davis and Jokic might win 65 games, even if it lasts for only one season.
Denver can enjoy being ahead of schedule for now. This season will be a success even if it loses to Portland. The playoffs are where stars are made, and Jokic has established himself as one of the best players in the NBA. He is currently one of four players in NBA history to average more than 24 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists in one postseason. The other three? Oscar Robertson, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook. Jokic has a higher true shooting percentage (60.5) than any of them. Imagine where he will be should he ever work on his still-doughy body over the next few seasons. There is no ceiling to how good he can become. Big men have been getting run off the floor in the postseason for a long time now. Jokic is their best chance of striking back.