It's virtually impossible to limit the scope of Nikola Jokic's influence on offense. A historically efficient three-level scorer who runs either side of ball screens at an elite level and manipulates defenses with the pass like LeBron James, the Denver Nuggets superstar is on the way to cementing himself as one of the several best offensive players of all-time.
Jokic's surest means of garnering that consensus status from the basketball consensus? Leading the Nuggets to their first ever championship. Standing tall in Jokic's way are the Los Angeles Lakers, who sport the best playoff defense in basketball behind Anthony Davis.
Needless to say, Davis will spend a lot of time trying to contain Jokic in the Western Conference Finals. Kevin Garnett, arguably the greatest defender ever and cut from a similar cloth of length, athleticism and anticipation as Davis, has an idea of how he'd defend Denver's two-time MVP.
“If I'm having to guard Joker right now, bro, the first thing I'm finna do, I'm finna initiate the fight early,” Garnett told Matt Barnes on SHOWTIME's KG Certified. “Soon as you take it out, and you're trailing? Man, I'm waiting on you. I'm at the free throw line at that end waiting on you. And guess what I'mma do? I'm gonna bump you a little bit, we're gonna run up together. I'mma bump you a little bit. I'll be able to smell your cologne, your hairspray.”
"If I'm having to guard Joker right now, I'm initiating the fight early… You cannot give him the same thing… He's like a counter-puncher, he'll let you swing first."
Kevin Garnett on how he would guard Nikola Jokic.
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) May 16, 2023
An ultra-physical, combative approach alone won't work against Jokic, though. Garnett knows he would need to show the Serbian sensation multiple different looks in hopes of keeping him off-balance.
“I've got to switch it up. Next time I come down, I may let him run. Give him some, a foul. Take one,” Garnett said. “You cannot give him the same thing, 'cause guess what he's doing? Joker's so smart he's letting you come down and he's letting you initiate. He's like a counterpuncher. He let you swing first—boom, bam! Then you adjusting. So in that, you gotta mix it up.”
The best offensive players can't be let off the hook on the other end.
Jokic has improved by leaps and bounds defensively over the course of his career, but is still limited by lacking lateral quickness and vertical lift. Garnett would ensure he keeps the hulking seven-footer busy defensively in hopes of not just wearing him out, but letting Jokic know he's up for a two-way challenge.
“And then on the offensive end? Ah naw. We finna run. I'm finna see how good of a shape you are. I'm finna get down here first, I'mma be big. ‘C'mon, give me the motherf***er here! Ah, didn't get it this time.' I'mma be setting hard picks, rolling hard. This coolness, ‘I ain't really, I don't wanna be out here' s**t? He picking up on that.”
Seems simple enough for Davis and company, right?
LeBron James' quest for a fifth championship at 38 years old is a story with mass crossover appeal. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. returning from injury to help Denver hit its peak is a ringing endorsement of the Nuggets' patient team-building. Don't forget the Lakers were left for dead before the trade deadline. Denver's downsized bench unit for the postseason answered one of its biggest questions marks.
But nothing looms larger to the outcome of the Western Conference Finals than the matchup between Jokic and Davis. We'll start to find out in Tuesday's Game 1 not only whether Davis can keep Jokic in check, but how Denver will try to limit Davis' impact, too.