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Portland’s varied coverages against Jokic keyed Game 2 victory

The Blazers’ adjustments in Game 2 helped put pressure on Jokic and the Nuggets.

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After Nikola Jokic dominated in every offensive facet in Game 1, the Portland Trail Blazers clearly needed something to change. In Game 2, plenty was different, both good and bad from the Portland perspective, but one area in which they excelled in was limiting Jokic’s offensive effectiveness, especially from his post-ups. He still had a strong game and was the orchestra conductor for a lot of what the Denver Nuggets were able to accomplish offensively, but he didn’t add an efficient scoring night to his usual array of dizzying passes and herky-jerky drives to the rim. He also only shot four free throws on the night but drew a total of five fouls, as Portland hit him three times in non-shooting situations and finished +2 in his 37 minutes in a game the Trail Blazers won by seven points.

The point of attack defensively on Jokic was Enes Kanter, who had another very strong game on that end of the floor despite being clearly hampered with that left shoulder injury. For the most part, Kanter is still able to bang with Jokic in the post and make life difficult for him, but things go awry for him when he has to lift that arm above his head. It’s easier to tell if the roles are reversed; when Kanter is backing down Jokic in the post, he’s able to use that left shoulder to generate separation, but if he spins back over his right shoulder for a lefty jump hook or layup, he goes up with his right hand, which is much easier to block. If he were fully healthy, those lefty hooks and layups would be no issue for him; he lost at least two or three baskets in Game 2 from simply not being able to use that left hand offensively.

The injury also makes things more difficult for Kanter to keep Jokic off the offensive glass, which reared its ugly head throughout the latter part of Wednesday’s game. Fortunately for Portland, they were able to come away with the win despite giving up 23 offensive rebounds, but Kanter’s diminished effect on the defensive glass could be a significant problem going forward in this series. In the same vein, part of Jokic’s relative inefficiency in the box score had to do with how many second and third chances he had at the rim; each of those taps on the offensive glass count as shot attempts in the box score, so perhaps his 7-for-17 night understates how well he did on a per-possession basis (since offensive rebounds don’t reset the possession for advanced statistics on most websites).

Jokic’s physicality and Kanter’s injury created a situation in which it was imperative that Portland use their entire team to defend the former’s post-ups. Leaving Kanter on an island in the post might be the best option if he were healthy, as he’s stout enough to keep Jokic away from the rim. Staying home on shooters and cutters would also make it more difficult for Jokic to pass out of the post and turn him into a scorer, which he’s eschewed at times as more of pass-first star.

However, the fact is that Kanter is hampered physically in this series, which means the Trail Blazers have to use the full team to break up Jokic’s rhythm in the post. This doesn’t mean that they should send a double team on the catch or on the bounce every time, though, because Jokic is too smart for that. If you show him the same coverage over and over, he’ll pick you apart; even the very best defenses would have trouble if they did the same thing every time he caught the ball down low.

Instead, the Trail Blazers brought lots of different coverages and varied the timing of their help to throw Jokic off his game. There were moments when they brought the help as soon as he put the ball on the floor for the first time, as a lot of teams do when they plan on doubling in the post. Rarely does a player command an immediate double on the catch, though there are certainly exceptions to that rule. When Jokic caught the ball in a clear advantage matchup, Portland did bring a second (and even a third) defender as soon as humanly possible:

Outside of this possession, the Trail Blazers mostly let Jokic at least put the ball on the ground before the second defender rushed in, but even that was varied; sometimes it was on the first dribble, sometimes they let him have a second bounce before the help arrived. This sort of variance kept him on his toes and thinking about when the double was coming, rather than being able to play with the confidence that comes from knowing what the other team is doing. A few times, this ended in turnovers for the Trail Blazers as Kanter was able to get a hand on the ball while Jokic surveyed the court:

Portland’s varied coverages on Jokic’s post-ups brought about a lot of confusion for him and the Nuggets as a whole – outside of his first post-up possession late in the first quarter that netted a Malik Beasley corner 3, Denver didn’t score on any of Jokic’s next 10 post-ups, shooting 0-for-6 and committing four turnovers. Portland wasn’t necessarily responsible for all of their own success in this department, as Denver couldn’t hit water from a boat on their jumpers in the first half, but they do deserve credit for throwing multiple coverages at Jokic and making him think about how the defense was rotating and from where the help was coming.