The Leap: Nikola Jokić's dominance as a pick-and-roll defender

Matt Brooks
Writer & Digital Content Specialist

Welcome to 'The Leap,' a Nuggets.com mini-series highlighting the in-postseason growth of some of Denver's cornerstone players.

For the third edition of 'The Leap,' we'll be analyzing Nikola Jokić's underrated run as a defender in the 2023 NBA playoffs, highlighted by his lockdown performance in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

Nikola Jokić had one of the greatest playoff runs of all time in the 2023 postseason.

If that sounds hyperbolic, it shouldn't.

The 27-year-old finished just a hair under averaging a 30-point triple-double with 30 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 9.5 assists in 20 total playoff games. He became the first player in NBA history to total at least 600 points, 190 assists, and 260 rebounds in a playoff run. And he did all of this with remarkable efficiency: 54.8 percent shooting from the field, 56.8 percent from two-point range, 46.1 percent from three-point land, and 79.9 percent from the free-throw line.

Simply put, it was one of the greatest offensive explosions this league has ever seen in a postseason. But that shouldn't overshadow what he did on the other side of the floor.

Denver finished the 2022-23 regular season as a mid-tier defense at 17th overall in defensive rating. That rating jumped all the way up to fourth in the postseason. At the center of that dramatic rise in defensive acuity was Jokić, who held playoff opponents 1.7 percent below their normal shooting percentages when he was the closest defender.

Denver's opponents finished with a below-average offensive rating in 11 of their 20 total playoff games. 4 of those performances occurred in the NBA Finals against the Miami HEAT to help the franchise take home its first-ever Larry O'Brien trophy.

Game 3 against Miami highlighted Denver's run. Not only did the Nuggets win 109-94 to go up 2-1 in the series while on the road, you could make a strong case that the game itself was Jokić finest defensive showcase of his 8-year career. And he did so in the biggest game of his life to tip the scales in Denver's favor.

The catalyst behind Jokić's outstanding performance was his versatility in the pick-and-roll. More specifically, the Serbian center alternated between multiple coverages to keep Miami's offense guessing and executed each of them brilliantly.

There were many things that led to the HEAT becoming the first 8-seed to advance to the NBA Finals since the 2000 New York Knicks. A strong defensive backbone was one of them. The depth of its roster was another.

But by far most significant was Miami's hot three-point shooting. Miami shot better than 43 percent from behind the arc to take down the two best teams in the regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics, in the first and third rounds of the playoffs. Heading into the Finals, they were the postseason's best three-point shooting team at 40.7 percent that had nailed an improbable 43.1 percent of their catch-and-shoot looks.

Those percentages fell precipitously in the Finals. Miami made just 34.3 percent of their looks from a distance. The Nuggets also held the HEAT to just 35.7 percent shooting on catch-and-shoots.

Denver was well aware of Miami's reliance on the three-pointer and made it a priority to shut down that aspect of their offensive game plan. They had Jokić play higher up the floor and meet Miami's ball handlers above the three-point line after ball screens. Here's a screenshot of what that looked like.

Having Jokić play "up" or "hedge" pick-and-rolls was a masterful strategy in erasing Miami's three-point game. He played higher up the floor against Miami's three-point specialists: Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, and Kyle Lowry.

But as mentioned, Jokić executed multiple pick-and-roll coverages with proficiency in Game 3, and not just "hedging." He erased Miami's two-point scoring game, as well, with a super-sturdy showing as a drop defender.

Drop coverage is a style of pick-and-roll defense where the big man defends the play at about the free-throw line (instead of near the three-point line like a "hedge"). Ideally, the drop defender's positioning gives him a head start to take away shots at the basket from both the ball-handler and the screener on rolls to the rim. Here's a screenshot of Jokić in a drop coverage from Game 3.

Notice Jokić's positioning just below the free-throw line while Jimmy Butler handles the ball. This is by design. Butler does most of his damage as a scorer inside the arc, so Denver had Jokić drop back whenever Jimmy initiated sets. Drop defense was also utilized when Caleb Martin handled the rock, who similarly feasts near the basket.

Denver's strategy paid off. Handsomely. The HEAT shot just 34.8 percent around the basket in Game 3 largely because of Jokić's relentless protection. To get an idea of just how ridiculous that is, the league's worst at-rim shooting team, Oklahoma City, shot 62.6 percent at the cup in the regular season. This was also the second-lowest at-rim shooting percentage that any team shot against Denver in a game in both the regular season and postseason, a sample that spanned 102 total games.

Jokić's adaptability in the pick-and-roll helped Denver hold Miami to 102.2 points per 100 possessions in Game 3, an 80th-percentile defensive rating.

For all of the talk about beating the Nuggets by simply "putting Jokić in the pick-and-roll," that strategy fell flat on its face in the postseason. Opponents shot just 40 percent from the field whenever Jokić was involved as the pick-and-roll big man.

More importantly, Denver gave up just 0.74 points per possession in the pick-and-roll with Jokić on the floor, an 88th-percentile ranking. Only New York's Mitchell Robinson performed better as a pick-and-roll defender among playoff centers.

He was also excellent at defending the post. Jokić gave up just 0.72 points per post-up play, an 88th percentile ranking.

"He's a really good defender. He's got great hands and a great IQ on defense and knows what the player is trying to get to, tendencies, cat-and-mouse, rule of (verticality), just everything. He talks early in pick-and-rolls. Post defense. There's everything," said Jamal Murray.

"I think he does a great job on defense. Everybody is going to have something that they don't do well on the court, and for that to be the one thing that he doesn't do particularly well and be able to still do it at a high level is pretty impressive. He's been doing it all season. He's been getting better at it, too.

"So, I only see room for improvement for him," Murray concluded with a sly grin.