Over the Denver Nuggets’ first two series this postseason, Nikola Jokic went from merely an interesting basketball weapon to one of the scariest matchups in the NBA. After falling down 3-1 in both series, Jokic sliced through the Jazz and Clippers’ defenses as if they were hardly there. In order to beat Denver, the Lakers will have to keep Jokic in check in a way nobody has since the postseason began.
Los Angeles, understandably, got a lot of credit in the second round for seamlessly sizing down to match the small-ball Rockets, but they will have to make an equally big adjustment in the opposite direction to slow down Jokic. The Serbian big man has earned that. Without the size to stop him one-on-one, the Clippers had to get creative — or at least in theory they should have. Instead, Jokic was masterful against Montrezl Harrell, Ivica Zubac, and everyone who got switched onto him.
With even less size top to bottom than the Clippers, Frank Vogel and the Lakers will have to rely — as they have all year — on the individual intelligence and defensive skill. Still, it bears walking through just how little of a fight the Lakers put up against Jokic in the regular season. Though the Nuggets lost two of three to Los Angeles in the regular season, they actually outscored LA in those matchups by 15, and one of the losses came in a closely-contested overtime battle.
In something that likely won’t come as a surprise, after hardly playing JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard against the Rockets, Vogel said this week he expects his team to “return to form” against Denver. Judging from the regular season and the teams’ matchup in the seeding games, however, that plan may be discarded quickly.
Howard, in particular, struggled to cover ground like he used to when he was competing for MVP and DPOY awards. The vet got shredded in the pick-and-roll time and again trying to account for Jokic’s shooting, as well as his mobility and play-making with the ball in his hands. These mistakes may look familiar to those who watched Jokic go to work against the Clippers. Opponents look downright demoralized when Jokic outsmarts them, and the typical length and mobility that have always served Howard well just stood no chance against a 7-foot battering ram with the handle and mind of a Hall of Fame point guard.
Even with Anthony Davis on the weak side rotating over, Denver’s passing is so crisp and proactive that they could beat Davis’ rotations. That’s why you see Davis swatting at Jokic a beat too late in nearly every clip above. When the point-of-attack defense spouts a hole, even an incredible athlete like Davis can’t make up for the mistake.
That brings us to McGee. The two-time champ is quicker than Howard but still ended up out of position all too often. When McGee dropped into the paint, it forced the Lakers (in this case Danny Green) into a scramble to rotate. That — as the Clippers learned — spells doom against Jokic, who can drill a three or put the ball on the ground to beat a broken defense.
Inevitably, Jokic is going to figure out a way to get into isolation situations against his defender. More often than not, he’ll find a way to beat them. The Lakers can’t just let that happen and watch McGee and Howard get cooked. Though the Lakers’ identity all year stemmed from elite size and rim protection, they may have to look more like the group from the five games against Houston than the 73 prior to that if they’re going to beat the Nuggets.
Jokic’s appearance is deceiving for many reasons. The jokes are all accurate about getting suckered by a guy like this in the local gym, but his bruising interior style also forces teams to think they need to play big. Fortunately for L.A., they have a star who accomplishes both goals and who just put on a defensive masterclass in the second round.
The main problem with the Lakers’ bigs is that they lack the functional strength to move Jokic off his spots in the post or as a screener and facilitator outside. That meant they had to rely on getting a hand in his face or sending double-teams to stop him. But rarely did Davis check Jokic in the regular season or the seeding game. For the Lakers to stifle the Nuggets’ offense (especially in crunch time, where Jokic is unstoppable), Davis will need to accept this matchup and win it.
This reality even prompted Lakers reporter Anthony Slater of The Athletic to promote the idea of potentially starting Markieff Morris in this series as a way to masquerade Davis as a center while keeping another pseudo-big in the lineup. That idea could benefit the Lakers, especially if Morris keeps hitting the wide-open shots Davis and LeBron James create for him. Another possibility that Stan Van Gundy introduced on The Lowe Post this week was, at least late in games, for James to defend Jamal Murray while Davis checks Jokic. That way, when the two Nuggets unleash their lethal two-man game, the Lakers can switch without sacrificing size or quickness. While he didn’t make the expected impact in the Rockets series (L.A. didn’t need him to), Kyle Kuzma is another option in this two-man defense that would allow the Lakers to switch and guard the action with just two guys.
Too often, the slow-footedness of the Lakers’ bigs put the team in a bad situation defensively, either by having to send more help or by forcing wonky rotations. By putting Davis at center and getting creative with matchups, the Lakers stand a chance against Jokic’s screen game with just two guys and force the adjustment back on the Nuggets.
Perhaps the most dangerous thing about Jokic, though, is how he elevates his teammates. The idea of stopping Jokic is inextricable from containing the Nuggets’ entire offensive system. It may feel like the Utah series was Murray’s, and the Clippers series was Jokic’s, but the sum of their talents and chemistry together has become one of the hardest things to guard in the league.
Denver doesn’t have the shot distribution of an elite offense. They’ve generated the fourth-worst expected shooting efficiency in the playoffs, according to PBP Stats, as well as the fourth-lowest proportion of total shots to come from behind the arc or at the rim. But they were second only to Dallas in generating offense off cuts this season, according to Synergy Sports play type data, and between Murray and Jokic, they have two incredible shot-makers from all three levels in the half court.
The whole team also has a sense for how to find one another in their spots. Jokic fills the highlight reels, but both he and Murray are great and confident passers. Playing with Jokic has made every Nugget ready for a pass at any time (see Torrey Craig’s mid-cut assist to Jokic above), and this team can beat even the smartest defenses. Check out how even as James and Avery Bradley switch places to get a body in Jokic’s way at the free throw line, the big man beats the switch with a laser pass.
What this all means for the Lakers is that they can’t wait for Denver to force the issue when it comes to the rotation. The idea of Morris (and Rajon Rondo) makes sense for the Lakers, but as with the team’s traditional centers, Vogel can’t afford to play inconsistent veterans too many minutes if they can’t stay on the court against the Nuggets.
Los Angeles will miss Bradley as an option on Murray, but a few things are in their favor that weren’t before. Alex Caruso is even better defensively and more consistent than he was earlier in the year; the same is true for Kuzma. And they aren’t facing the type of killer wing player that could have posed a big issue for this roster. The Lakers have a few options to switch the Jokic-Murray pick-and-roll and can also use Davis to stop Jokic one-on-one.
Keeping Jokic all the way in check is a tall order, but there are reasonable pathways to doing it for this Lakers team that may prove more tolerable than the matchup problems the Clippers would have posed. Still, the most likely outcome is that Jokic is going to get his. Whether L.A. can limit the damage could be the difference between an early return to California or a trip to the NBA Finals.