Jokic’s brothers during his altercation with Booker 😳
Jokic’s brothers during his altercation with Booker 😳

NBA Finals: Nikola Jokić is so good, we aren’t even talking about his stunning 3-point shooting

MIAMI — Since the NBA introduced the 3-point shot in 1979, there have been 206 players who have attempted at least 65 long balls in a single postseason. Entering these playoffs, only 23 had knocked down at least 45% of those triple tries.

Boston Celtics guard Derrick White became the 24th earlier this postseason. Take a wild guess who’s about to become No. 25. I’ll give you a hint: It’s the guy who seems to set some kind of statistical record damn near every time he steps onto the court.

That’s right: Through 18 games in the 2023 NBA playoffs, Nikola Jokić — the 6-foot-11, 284-pound hydraulic press last seen partnering with Jamal Murray to crush the Miami Heat’s defense and lead the Denver Nuggets to a 2-1 edge in the NBA Finals — is shooting 31-for-66 (47%) from 3-point range. As if a dude who’s shooting 61.5% on 2-pointers in the Finals while also serving as the league’s premier low-post mauler and the postseason’s leading assist man needed another weapon to wield against overmatched opponents.

“Jokić can manipulate your defense in so many different ways that I can’t even get into,” an exasperated Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said before Game 3.

One of the many ways that Jokić does it? Through his 3-point shooting — both the actual production and, sometimes, even the mere threat of it.

“We have a great offense, period,” head coach Michael Malone said at Thursday’s practice for his Nuggets, who tied for fourth in points scored per possession during the regular season and lead the postseason in offensive efficiency by a mile, according to Cleaning the Glass. “But when Nikola is making threes, that puts so much more pressure on the opposing defense. … It’s not just the three points that he is making, but the pressure and the added layer he is putting against that defense.”

He puts that added layer on the defense by removing a layer from the defense.

“[It] takes the biggest guy out of the paint,” said Murray, who scored 14 of his game-high 34 points in Game 3 in the lane, thanks partly to the attention that Jokić demands when he spaces to the perimeter. “You have to guard him. He can obviously shoot it.”

(That, combined with the significant size advantage that they enjoy across virtually every position in this series, is one reason why the Nuggets were able to ring up a sparkling 121.1 offensive rating in Game 3 despite shooting just 5-for-18 from 3-point range. As Spoelstra said after a game Denver finished with a 60-34 advantage in interior scoring, “They just pummeled us in the paint. They didn’t really have to shoot threes.”)

Opposing big men know Jokić is a threat to raise up off the catch, so when the ball swings his way on the pick-and-pop, they have to close out aggressively. That, according to Malone, is when the fun really starts.

“I think he has one of the best shot fakes in the NBA,” Malone said. “And for a big guy, he is great at attacking closeouts. If you’re shooting 40-plus from three and now teams are really worried about that and they’re running you off the line or closing to touch, he is shot-faking or driving that closeout.

“And now you have a 6-foot-10, 6-foot-11 great passer getting downhill that is going to score — he is an uncanny finisher — [or] he is going to find somebody working behind the defense for a lob, or he is going to kick it out and spray for a wide-open three.”

That versatility and unpredictability puts defenders in an almost impossible situation pretty much every time Jokić catches the ball on the perimeter.

“He’s so creative and keeps you on your heels in so many different ways because he can shoot it,” said Heat big man Kevin Love (who, by the way, is on that aforementioned short list of players to shoot better than 45% on at least 65 attempts in a postseason). “I know — from especially where the game has gone, 4’s and 5’s being really good shooters, the game going to a pace-and-space [offensive approach] — that defending that is very tough. It poses a whole ’nother set of problems.”

Those problems, primarily, are Bam Adebayo’s to solve in this series. (As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate.) Miami’s All-Star center has done a good job of helping limit Jokic’s number of attempts from the perimeter — just nine through three games — but his aggressive closeouts have sometimes resulted in pump-and-go drives into the paint for baskets or drawn fouls.

“Biggest thing is just read and react,” Adebayo said. “Easier said than done, obviously.”

That level of variability in attack leaves the defense without any automatics or ready-made solutions. With players like Jokić, even if you guess right, they’ve got a way to make you wrong.

“Honestly, I can’t even tell you the answer to it, because he can shoot the ball, put the ball on the floor, pass the ball,” said Heat star Jimmy Butler, who’s had to switch out onto Jokić in the two-man game and deal with him one-on-one a number of times in this series. “You’ve just got to do everything you can to stay between him and the basket, trace the ball with both hands. But he is a hell of a player. He has been very, very dominant everywhere on the floor. You’re closing out one of the best players — if not the best player in the world. It’s a handful for anybody that is closing him out.”

Especially when Jokić makes a point of zagging when you expected a zig, just to give the defense something else to think about.

“I think he just does a good job of just picking his spots, pump faking, getting to the lane or shooting an open three — even shooting a contested one, just to keep them honest,” Murray said. “That opens things up not just for us, but for him as well.”

That sort of on-the-fly A/B testing and problem-solving speaks to a basketball IQ that’s drawn effusive praise from some of the most decorated and respected minds in the sport. It seems like an aspect of the game that Jokić really enjoys.

“I think it’s cool just to see different solutions, how different players think different and how some players are reacting a certain way, how certain players don’t react,” Jokić said Thursday. “Especially now — like, you remember, so they blitz us a couple times, they steal the ball, then we reacted good. It’s just kind of brain game, like a chess game. They are one move, we are another move. I think this is the time where the players show what they’ve got.”

And Jokić — now averaging 30.5 points, 13.4 rebounds and 10.1 assists per game on 55/47/80 shooting splits in a postseason that could be just two wins away from going down as one of the greatest of all time — is showing us that what he’s got might just be unprecedented.

“Joker is redefining the game,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “You are going to start seeing more and more players that can just do everything, regardless of size. He’s kind of like breaking that mold, kind of like how Magic Johnson did with the point guard position. He’s breaking the mold of the center position of only just being dominant down on the block. Now he’s being dominant from 40 feet. Everywhere on the floor.”

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