2023 Playoffs: West Final | Nuggets vs. Lakers

Nuggets confident Nikola Jokic can counter whatever schemes Lakers throw his way

With the ability to post up, shoot from the outside and create for others, Denver's star center has all the skills necessary to unlock any defense.

Did the Lakers find a solution for Nuggets star Nikola Jokic with their defensive adjustment in the fourth quarter?

DENVER – Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone pondered the high-stakes poker game pitting his team in the Western Conference finals against a Los Angeles Lakers squad that appears to have already played its next card first in Game 1.

Crossing both arms, the coach spoke matter-of-factly.

“Now, we’ve both shown our hands,” Malone said after Wednesday’s film session at Ball Arena.

Still, only Denver possesses the most recent back-to-back Kia MVP “Joker” that was already prepped to counter whatever Los Angeles threw his way Tuesday in slowing him down the stretch of the club’s 132-126 victory in Game 1. After utilizing a variety of tactics to defend Nikola Jokic in the first half with fleeting success, Lakers coach Darvin Ham implemented an adjustment Denver has seen on countless occasions this season, one it should expect again Thursday in Game 2 (8:30 ET, ESPN).

Midway through the fourth quarter of Game 1, Ham took the primarily responsibility of guarding Jokic off Anthony Davis and turned to Rui Hachimura, which in turn freed up the Lakers center to roam the paint and protect the rim. The move led to a fourth quarter in which Jokic missed the only two shots he attempted as Los Angeles outscored the home team 34-26 in the final frame while closing to within three points with 3:23 left on Austin Reaves’ 30-footer.

With Davis clogging the paint late, Jokic and the Nuggets appeared to start overthinking their offense. The only player in NBA postseason history to log multiple 30-point, 20-rebound triple-doubles, Jokic passed on opportunities to score in the fourth quarter and even committed a pair of turnovers that Los Angeles turned into four points.

“We saw it before,” said Jokic, who still finished with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists. “We saw it [in the first round] against Minnesota. We saw it even during the season. I had a couple of turnovers. I missed a shot. It doesn’t surprise us. But I think we’re going to figure it out because we did the last [time].”

While Denver successfully navigated the Timberwolves’ use of the coverage in the opening round of the playoffs, you can look back even further to January for more evidence of teams stonewalling Jokic by allowing their bigs to roam free in the paint. Jokic torched the Philadelphia 76ers for 16 points in the first half of a Jan. 28 loss on 6-of-7 shooting, including 2 of 2 from 3-point range to go with five assists against 2023 Kia NBA MVP Joel Embiid.

Denver entered intermission of that game leading 73-58, having connected on 66% from the floor.

Then, former Sixers coach Doc Rivers assigned P.J. Tucker the job of guarding Jokic, thus freeing up Embiid to patrol the paint while spying on the two-time MVP for an extra layer of rim protection. That neutralized Jokic’s ability to score at the cup while altering his ability to facilitate. The Nuggets committed eight turnovers down the stretch, including six from Jokic, as they surrendered a 15-point lead.

“We’ve seen that quite a bit before,” Malone said. “Last year with [Golden State’s] Draymond [Green], I think he was a free safety a lot in that first round series, just kind of [roaming] off Aaron [Gordon] and making that paint look really crowded. But we’ve seen that quite a bit this year. So, we can be a lot better in countering that.”

One way hinges on Denver’s ability to secure stops so it can sprint out in transition, which in turn prevents Los Angeles from setting its halfcourt defense. The Nuggets scored 17 fast break points in the first half compared to six for the Lakers. But Denver finished the final two quarters with only one bucket in transition.

The Lakers shot 66.7% from the field and 50% from deep while earning 20 free throws in the second half, which had the added benefit of allowing them to set their defense for most of Denver’s possessions. Even if Los Angeles forces Denver to play in the half court, the Nuggets need to improve their spacing in Game 2, along with their reaction to various reads, which could allow for more scoring on the weak side.

“There are different ways we can counter that without getting into great detail,” Malone said.

Regardless, Jokic remains Denver’s best shot. How he smooths whatever wrinkles the Lakers hurl at him ultimately determines the Nuggets’ chances in Game 2 and the rest of this series.

Nikola Jokic dominates Game 1 with his sixth triple-double of the playoffs.

Coming off his sixth triple-double of these playoffs, Jokic is now tied with Magic Johnson (1982) and Green (2019) for the second-most triple-doubles in a single postseason. The 28-year old racked up 19 points, 16 rebounds, and seven assists in the first half of Game 1 to become just the second player in league history to produce at least 15 points and 15 rebounds in the first half of a playoff game.

“Us as a team, we’ve seen everything there is to see with how teams will try to guard Nikola,” said Michael Porter Jr., who scored 15 points with 10 rebounds and two blocks in Game 1. “So it might’ve surprised us a little bit late in the second half. But I don’t think that will be an issue for us next game. We know how to counter that. When AD is roaming a little bit, it opens some stuff on the back side.”

If Los Angeles assigns Hachimura to Jokic early in Game 2, the Nuggets center can also help his team by staying out on the perimeter and simply shooting over his shorter opponent. Jokic attempted just 2.2 3-pointers per game during the regular season (38.3%) before cranking up the volume to 3.6 per game on 51.2% in the playoffs.

Earlier in the season, Porter would ask Jokic to “test it out, see if it’s falling tonight,” when players coming off screens would throw the ball back to the center, giving him a brief window to shoot. Usually, Jokic would pump fake before driving to the basket. But throughout the postseason, we’ve seen a more aggressive Jokic from the 3-point line.

“It takes bigs away from the basket when he’s shooting the ball that well on the perimeter,” Malone explained. “Most teams, they keep their big down the floor in pick and rolls. Now, if you have a big that’s capable of picking and popping and knocking down the 3 as efficiently as he is, that forces guys to have to get out there. Then, that opens up things behind it. When Nikola’s knocking down the 3, that forces teams to really close out hard to him.

“He’s one of the best guys in the NBA, not just big guys, but best players in terms of attacking closeouts. Very effective shot fake. He gets guys lifted. He gets downhill. His floater is almost automatic, and if you bring in help, he’s gonna spray it to the corners or find Aaron Gordon or Jeff [Green] operating behind the defense. So, that 3-point shot just opens up so many things within our offense.”

Denver will certainly need that in Game 2 against a Lakers team that might have even more inventive ways up its sleeve for slowing Jokic.

As for Malone and the Nuggets, they left Game 1 ecstatic to be leading the series 1-0, with the added benefit of having learned more about their opponent.

“Much is being made of them putting Rui Hachimura on Nikola Jokic like we’ve never seen that before,” Malone said. “But that’s what you love about getting that Game 1 under your belt. You have a much better feel now of what to expect. Obviously, we’re gonna make adjustments going into Game 2, and I’m sure they will.

“Now it’s just a constant tinkering of doing whatever you think is gonna give yourself the best chance to win this game, and more importantly win this series.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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