Denver Nuggets

One Play: How one sequence shines a light on Nikola Jokic's next-level basketball IQ

Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2020-21 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.

Today, Denver Nuggets centre Nikola Jokic takes the spotlight.

Context: Jokic did it again.

On Tuesday, the three-time All-Star led the Nuggets to a win over the Milwaukee Bucks with 37 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. He now has nine triple-doubles on the season, the second-most in the league, only trailing Russell Westbrook (10). Additionally, he now has 50 triple-doubles in his career, making him only the second centre in NBA history - the other being Wilt Chamberlain - to reach that milestone.

As always, Jokic's passing wizardry was on full display against the Bucks. There was one particular pass that stood out.

You know what that means - to the film room!

The play:

Breakdown: Following a made basket from Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jokic brings the ball up for the Nuggets.

Before he even reaches halfcourt, Jokic is telling his teammates where to go. I'm not going to pretend to know exactly what he's saying or thinking, but based on where he's looking before he gives the ball up to Jamal Murray...

...and what he motions after he gives the ball up to Murray...

...I'm assuming he's telling Nuggets forward Vlatko Cancar to park himself in the dunker spot to help space the floor against Milwaukee's 2-3 zone.

Jokic isn't done signal-calling either. As he approaches the 3-point line, he points to Will Barton on the right wing, likely telling him to stay put or move closer to the sideline.

This is where things get interesting.

Cancar being in the dunker spot and Barton being on the wing has the Bucks a little scrambled. Again, I'm not going to pretend to know exactly what's going through everyone's mind, but it looks like Jokic's pointing has D.J. Augustin thinking that Murray might swing the ball to Barton.

To avoid an immediate breakdown, Augustin appears to tell Lopez to pick up Cancar so he can stick with Barton.

Murray responds by slipping a pass between Khris Middleton and Antetokounmpo to Jokic instead of swinging it to Barton, which throws the Bucks for a loop.

Why? Now Lopez has no choice but to pick up Jokic.

Jokic has been automatic from that in-between range this season. According to NBA.com, he's 66-for-120 (55.0 percent) from midrange and 114-for-203 (56.2 percent) from the non-restricted area part of the paint. Had Lopez not picked him up, it would've gifted Jokic an open jumper from one of his sweet spots.

Similarly, with Lopez now guarding Jokic, Augustin now has no choice but to drop back and pick up Cancar.

Jokic makes Augustin think that he's going to slip a pass to Cancar on the backdoor cut by staring directly at him...

...only to throw a no-look pass to Barton in the corner.

Both Antetokounmpo and Augustin close out on Barton, but they can't prevent him from knocking it down.

Why it matters: The most interesting player to watch on this possession is Antetokounmpo, who spends most of it stationed right here:

Antetokounmpo shading more towards Barton might have helped as it would've allowed Augustin to pick up Cancar and Lopez to pick up Jokic, but it would've opened the door for the Nuggets to run a pick-and-roll or handoff between Murray and Jokic, because the Bucks would've effectively been in a man-to-man defence as opposed to a zone.

And sure, Antetokounmpo could have reacted quicker when Jokic first received the ball, but the fact that he didn't shows how fast everything developed. By my untrained eye, it took less than two seconds for the ball to leave Murray's hands and for it to end up in Barton's. It's one of those blink-and-you-may-have-missed-it sequences.

It shines a light on a couple of things. One, how difficult it is to defend NBA offences nowadays, where there are almost always at least four 3-point shooters on the court at all times. Two, how well Jokic reads the game.

We've become accustomed to it by now, but the things Jokic does on a nightly basis isn't normal, not in the slightest. While we've seen centres who can pass at a high level before - Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, to name a few - he's in a tier of his own. At some point over the last couple of seasons, he graduated from being the best passing big man of all-time to being arguably the best passer in the league today. He makes passes nobody else in the league does and manipulates defences in ways you'd expect to see from a LeBron James and Luka Doncic.

This isn't even one of the better passes Jokic has thrown this season - click here if you want to see some of those - but he doesn't have to dig deep in his bag of tricks to pick the Bucks apart. He does all of the hard work before Murray passes him the ball at the free throw line, getting everyone in position because he knows the rotations it will force the Bucks to make. From there, it's a game of taking what the defence gives him.

It would be one thing if teams only had to worry about Jokic's passing, but he's developed into one of the league's best scorers as well. He's averaging a career-best 27.3 points per game this season, ranking him 10th in the league behind the likes of Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Whether it's spotting up on the 3-point line, rolling to the basket or setting himself up in the post, there's little he can't do offensively anymore, and he's looking to assert himself as a scorer more than ever before, which only makes his passing more of a weapon.

Put it all together and you get a walking mismatch, one who is a threat to go off for a 30-point triple-double on any given night. The Bucks learned that the hard way.

"What he does so well is he switches things up," Bucks guard Pat Connaughton said of Jokic after the game. "He made a few 3s tonight. He took it to the paint. He had the ball in pick-and-rolls. He set pick-and-rolls. He rolled. He popped. He half-rolled. He did some different things and he has that versatility and that skill set ... it just makes him so hard to guard."

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