Some have called them one of the worst two-seeds we’ve seen. Some have questioned their youth and inexperience. But the Denver Nuggets are one win away from the Western Conference Finals, and that’s no accident.
Surviving their seven-game bout with the San Antonio Spurs was just the beginning. Despite losing an epic four-overtime thriller in Game 3, the Nuggets have a three-games-to-two lead over the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round, and can almost taste the Conference Finals.
One of the keys to the Nuggets’ playoff success has been the play of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. The duo has been outstanding in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and questions of inexperience are quickly being replaced by questions of how many years they’ll terrorize the league for.
Jokic, in particular, has been one of the best players in the playoffs, averaging 24.5 points, 13.1 rebounds, and nine assists a game. But his individual brilliance has partly been a result of the ball movement and constant motion of the Nuggets’ offense. Murray and Jokic seemingly have taken their game to the next level, and have proven to be near unstoppable in the first two rounds.
Let’s take a look at the interplay between Murray and Jokic in this Blazers series, and examine why they’ve been so successful.
The pick-and-roll is one of the most common plays in basketball, and here, Murray and Jokic execute it well for an easy layup for the big man.
On this play, Jokic bumps Maurice Harkless on the screen, and Murray gets going downhill. Al-Farouq Aminu, Jokic’s defender, is forced to step up to Murray. A quick pocket pass to the rolling Jokic makes Enes Kanter bump down from his man to help, but with no Blazer in good position, it’s an easy lay-in.
After being the roll man in pick-and-roll plays only 2.8 possessions a game in the regular season, that number has skyrocketed to 6.1 possessions per game in the playoffs–the most in the postseason. In addition, Jokic’s 1.26 points per possession (PPP) shows his efficiency as the roll man, and is the second-highest PPP in the playoffs among roll men.
The Nuggets often run a variation of the pick-and-roll, as Jokic starts the play with a handoff to Murray before rolling to the basket.
Similar defense here leads to a similar result. After the Jokic handoff, Murray gets going downhill again. Once again, Kanter has to contain him, and a bounce pass to Jokic leaves Kanter too little time to recover. With some space, Jokic nails the floater.
In Game 5, after the Blazers have seen plenty of this, the Nuggets run it again here in the fourth quarter:
This time, it’s Meyers Leonard who’s stuck having to guard two men. He chooses to step up and take Murray, but a behind-the-back pass to the rolling Jokic leads to an open floater.
Also noteworthy here is that with a defender behind the play, the Blazers can choose to send a help defender to take Jokic on the roll.
But the Nuggets’ placement doesn’t allow for that, as Zach Collins helping on Jokic would give Paul Millsap an easy dunk, and Evan Turner helping off of Gary Harris in the corner would yield an open triple to a player shooting 35% in the playoffs from deep.
The Nuggets can also run this handoff action anywhere on the court, as shown on this play from Game 4:
A lot is happening on this play, as Murray gives the ball to Jokic at the top of the arc, before both set a double screen for Gary Harris.
Not wanting to switch, Kanter shows on Harris before recovering back to Jokic. Harris swings the ball to Murray, and the Murray-Jokic two-man game begins again.
Murray enters the ball to Jokic in the post, and Murray sprints to take the handoff. Jokic rolls, and Kanter takes a step towards Murray to deter the layup before retreating. Murray takes what the defense gives, and gets an open baseline floater out of it.
Another option off of the Murray-Jokic high screen is for Murray to drive, as on this play:
After the Jokic pick, Murray splits the two defenders and is already in the paint. It seems like the Blazers’ help defenders aren’t sure whether to just jab at him or fully help, as no help comes.
Jokic starts to roll, but then backs off when he sees Murray has a lane. And as a result, the lightning-quick Murray gets right to the rim and has the layup.
Another threat is the pick-and-pop. Jokic is talented as a roll man, as he’s an elite passer and can also nail a floater. But he can knock down the triple as well, which makes him so dangerous as a stretch five.
On this play, it’s a simple pick-and-pop, and it’s a wide, wide open three for Jokic:
Off of the pick, Murray drives while Jokic pops. Kanter, Jokic’s defender, has sunk deep into the paint to contain Murray.
With Damian Lillard still chasing Murray around the screen, Murray kicks it back out to Jokic, who’s standing all by himself at the arc.
Jokic is shooting the three at a 38% clip in the playoffs, much higher than his 30.7% shooting from deep in the regular season. As a result, it puts defenses in a whirlwind of chaos, and any slight miscommunication can be deadly.
With the Jokic as a screener being such a key part of what Denver does on offense, the Nuggets cleverly run this inverted pick-and-pop, where Jokic is now the ball-handler:
Instead of Jokic setting the screen, Murray sets the screen for Jokic this time. Having a seven-footer with the skills of a point guard definitely helps here, as there are not many teams in the NBA that can run an inverted pick-and-pop with their center and point guard. Jokic drives and gets to the paint, as both Blazers defenders collapse on him.
Like a true point guard, Jokic deftly kicks it back out to Murray, who is left wide open. Murray has enough time to marvel at his center’s driving and passing ability if he wanted to, before knocking down the open triple.
The options that Murray and Jokic can run together are endless, and more times than not, the Nuggets get a good shot out of their two-man game. Whether Jokic is rolling or popping, and whether Murray is driving or passing, their chemistry and ability to carve up a defense has been invaluable in these playoffs.
And if the Blazers, or any team down the road, want to stop the Nuggets, they’ll have to first solve the unsolvable two-man game of Jokic and Murray.