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: Damian Lillard stole the show with his historic performance in Game 5, but Nikola Jokic did his thing as well.
In a double overtime thriller, Jokic led the Nuggets to a much-needed victory with 38 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists on 14-for-31 shooting from the field. He also blocked four shots, a game high that tied his career high in the playoffs.
The front-runner for MVP, Jokic has been picking teams apart all season long, but he showed up in a big way down the stretch of a crucial Game 5 for the Nuggets, both as a scorer and passer. He had one particular assist that shined a light on his brilliance as a playmaker, as well as something else that we'll get into.
You know what that means - to the film room!
Breakdown: Tied at 140 with 1:40 remaining in the second overtime, Jokic sizes up Enes Kanter in the post.
Surrounding Jokic are four perimeter players in Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. They overload the weakside to give Jokic the room he needs to work his magic against Kanter.
This is your reminder that only one player scored more points out of the post than Jokic this season, and he ranked in the 73rd percentile with an average 1.04 points per possession. He's an absolute nightmare to defend with his back to the basket, even for players as big and strong as Kanter.
Not wanting to leave Kanter out on an island - Jokic did have 38 points at this point of the game - Norman Powell leaves Porter to double Jokic.
With two defenders now on Jokic, CJ McCollum, Damian Lillard and Robert Covington are left having to cover for Morris, Rivers, Gordon and Porter.
This is where things get interesting.
There's no space for Jokic to attack and there's not a clear pass for him to make, so he raises his arm in the air as if to say, "Uhhh, is anyone going to do anything?"
Time is working against him, with 4.8 seconds remaining on the shot clock.
Jokic waving his arm prompts Gordon to make a cut towards the basket.
It's now clear where the Blazers stand: McCollum is on Morris, Lillard is inching more towards Rivers on the wing and Covington is stuck between rock and a hard place, having to choose between dropping to the paint to prevent Gordon from getting a dunk and running out to the corner to prevent Porter from getting a clean look at a 3.
With Covington sort of stuck in no man's land, Jokic rifles a pass over him to Porter in the corner.
Covington recorded the fifth-most steals and the most deflections in the league this season, but not even he can get a hand of Jokic's pass. (He sure did get close, though).
The list of players who could've made that pass in that situation is not long.
Why it matters: Usually I'd use this space to gush about how ridiculous of a passer Jokic is, but I've done that a number of times already this season.
Instead, I want to bring your attention to one number: 107.1.
That's Portland's defensive rating in this series with Jusuf Nurkic on the court. Without him, that number drops all the way down to ... 135.5.
For context, that's the difference between the Blazers having the league's third-best defence this season and the absolute worst. (The Sacramento Kings had the worst defensive rating in the league this season, giving up 116.5 points per 100 possessions).
Now, we're still working with relatively small sample sizes here, but Portland's problem is that it hasn't played that many more minutes with Nurkic on the bench (110) than with him on the court (140) through five games because he's fouled out three times, each of which resulted in wins for the Nuggets.
Nurkic isn't even some All-NBA type of defender, but he's by far and away Portland's best defensive option at centre and he is the only player on its roster with a chance of matching up with Jokic. Though it's far from perfect, the matchup data tells you all you need to know. According to NBA.com, Jokic has scored 62 points on 26-for-57 (45.6 percent) shooting from the field with Nurkic as his primary defender. Pretty solid, right? Against everyone else, he's scored a combined 99 points on 36-for-63 (57.1 percent) shooting.
Additionally, Jokic has recorded five assists and four turnovers with Nurkic defending him. Against everyone else, he has 13 assists and four turnovers.
In other words, Nurkic has been able to make life somewhat difficult for Jokic, and Jokic has been cooking against everyone not named Nurkic.
Jokic's eyes seem to light up when Nurkic isn't on the court, too. When Nurkic fouled out with 5:17 remaining in Game 3, Jokic immediately went to work by scoring six points and dishing out three assists to give the Nuggets the jolt they needed to come away with the win. When Nurkic fouled out with 4:00 remaining in Game 5, Jokic did more of the same by immediately going into attack mode.
First, a dish to Rivers for a catch-and-shoot 3.
Second, a runner of sorts over Covington out of the post.
Third, another runner of sorts over Covington, this time off of a cut.
Finally, a drive in which he drew a shooting foul on Covington, earning him two free throws.
That was just in regulation. Jokic scored seven more points and dished out four more assists in the overtime periods, including the one to Porter that sealed the deal. Had Lillard not gone Super Saiyan on the Nuggets, Jokic would've propelled them to victory much sooner.
It was a reminder of what makes Jokic such a special player, but it was also a reminder of how valuable Nurkic is to this Blazers team.
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