Denver Nuggets

One Play: You don't want Nikola Jokic getting the ball at the elbow

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: Nikola Jokic added to his MVP case on Sunday with another ridiculous performance.

In a comeback win over the Orlando Magic, Jokic fell one rebound shy of his 13th triple-double of the season, finishing with 17 points, 16 assists and nine rebounds.

Jokic now has six 15-assist games in his career. Since the 3-point era, every other centre in the NBA has combined for ... zero such games.

Jokic had eight assists in the third quarter alone. The Magic had no answer for him, but there was one particular set the Nuggets went to a number of times that gave them trouble.

You know what that means - to the film room!

The play:

Breakdown: Aaron Gordon brings the ball up for the Nuggets on the opening possession of the second half.

Will Barton and Michael Porter Jr. space the floor by spotting up in opposite corners while Jokic and Jamal Murray park themselves at opposite elbows.

Murray rarely gets the ball at the elbow, but Jokic leads the NBA with an average of 9.2 elbow touches per game this season. The next most? Domantas Sabonis with 6.8 elbow touches per game.

Gordon sets everything off by entering the ball to Jokic at one of his sweet spots.

With the ball now in Jokic's hands, Murray makes his way towards Gordon at the top of the 3-point line and sets a screen on him, hoping to free him up for a backdoor cut.

Since joining the Nuggets, Gordon is averaging a league-high 6.0 points per game off of cuts, per NBA.com. Not only that, he's scoring at a rate of 1.60 points per possession, ranking him in the 93rd percentile.

Knowing how dynamic of a cutter Gordon is, Murray's defender, R.J. Hampton, drops back while Gordon's defender, Chuma Okeke, fights around Murray's screen.

The problem? That leaves Murray unguarded.

With both Hampton and Okeke in the paint - it's hard to tell if Hampton was trying to provide some relief by dropping back or if he was expecting them to switch - Murray pops to the 3-point line.

According to NBA.com, Murray has made 44.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts this season. He's not someone you can leave open.

Why it matters: Relatively simple stuff, right? Here's where it gets fun.

A few minutes later, the Nuggets ran the exact same play, only Hampton switched onto Gordon after Okeke got caught up in Murray's screen.

The result...

The Nuggets ran the same play again on their next offensive possession. This time, the Magic had Hampton close out on Murray while Okeke got around the screen.

The result...

The Magic defended the initial action better the fourth (!) time the Nuggets ran it, but Jokic simply transitioned into running a handoff with Murray.

Hampton ended up switching onto Jokic, which, well...

Last but not least, the Nuggets entered the ball to Jokic at the elbow on a broken possession near the middle of the third quarter, leading to - you guessed it - another backdoor cut.

It's a smart set that plays to the strengths of Denver's personnel - especially with Gordon now on the team, the Nuggets basically have shooting and/or dynamic cutters at every position - but Jokic is the reason it's so effective. With him being an elite shooter, it draws Magic centre Wendell Carter Jr. out of the paint, opening up cuts to the basket for Gordon and Porter. Being 6-foot-11 with a reported 7-foot-3 wingspan allows him to see through the trees and deliver pinpoint passes over the top of defenders. And, of course, he's arguably the best passing big man of all-time, in addition to being arguably the best passer in the game today.

Go back and watch each one of those passes. Jokic's timing and accuracy is perfect. We've become accustomed to it at this point, but it's not normal for a player his size to make the passes he does.

The beauty of Jokic's game is that he has just about every pass in the book. It allows the Nuggets to utilize him in a variety of ways - he's a dynamo out of the post and can pick teams apart out of the short roll - but sometimes simply parking him at the elbow and running actions off of it is enough to send defences into a frenzy.

The Magic learned that the hard way.

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