When the Portland Trail Blazers face the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, one name will be circled on Portland’s white board: Nikola Jokic. The 6’11 center has averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists this season, appearing in all 72 games for the Nuggets. The masterful performance has left him heir apparent to the NBA MVP crown.
Jokic presents a host of problems for any opponent. How the Blazers solve, or at least mitigate, them will determine whether they have a clear path towards victory in this series or whether they’re setting sail with a huge hole in the side of the ship, bailing water to avoid sinking entirely.
NBA centers tend to fall into three categories: play-finisher, floor-stretcher, or afterthought. Jokic is different. He plays more like a modern NBA guard than a pivot, save that he starts many plays in the middle of the court instead of the edges. He’s a triple-threat on every possession: wheel towards the basket, fire the jumper, or pass. Thus he presents a classic “scoring guard” dilemma for the defense. When opponents single-cover him (or leave him open on the perimeter), he converts with relative ease. If they send help, he can pinpoint an open shooter or cutter seemingly in a nanosecond. Since his range extends to the three-point arc, no possession is safe while he’s on the floor. He is the hub of Denver’s offense.
A look at Jokic’s shot chart on StatMuse reveals the danger he presents. You can draw a line from the bucket straight up the court. Anywhere within four feet of that line, out to and including the straightaway three, Jokic is deadly. He shoots a high percentage near the rim, and maintains his efficiency when he moves away from it.
Jokic’s straight-on jumper is practically a layup. Per basketball-reference, he shoots 57.2% between 3-10 feet, 48.1% between 3-10 feet, and an astounding 52.8% between 16 feet and the arc. That’s in addition to his 38.8% rate on three-pointers. CJ McCollum is considered one of the best mid-range shooters in the game. Jokic’s percentages exceed McCollum’s significantly.
Jokic’s assist numbers are also eye-popping. He ranked third in the NBA this season in total assists and 6th in assists per game, right below Luka Doncic and just above Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard. Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler are the only non-guards in the Top 10 in that category. Jokic is the only center in the Top 20.
As if that weren’t enough, Jokic is also 8th in the league in offensive rebounding.
Combine the scoring capacity of McCollum, the playmaking of Lillard, and offensive rebounding potential pretty close to Enes Kanter, and you’ve got Nikola Jokic.
Even though Jokic a handful and a half, he’s not invincible. His splits show he produced significantly worse this season against the following teams: Atlanta, Cleveland, Miami, Philadelphia, and Toronto. A couple of those games could be explained away by taking it easy against a lesser opponent. But most of those rosters have a common feature: active centers who are able to keep Jokic occupied chasing them around the floor or getting bodied up.
There’s no magic commonality between Joel Embiid, Clint Capela, Bam Adebayo, and Jarrett Allen. If Jokic had a “type”, he wouldn’t be MVP. But all of them do something and they tend to do it fairly quickly, with athleticism.
The Blazers can’t offer that kind of counter. Jusuf Nurkic can be quick, but not always. He’s not hyper-athletic and doesn’t present a physical matchup contrast to Jokic. Enes Kanter is not as fast as Nurkic. Neither one is close to Adebayo, or even Allen, in that sense.
But raw athleticism might not be the only way to blunt the edge of Jokic’s dominance. The success of Portland’s plan depends on footsteps as much as leaping ability. Nurkic and Kanter are both viable threats. If the Nuggets ignore Nurkic he’ll score 24 with 10 assists. If they ignore Kanter it’ll be 20 with 24 rebounds. They have the capacity to make Jokic work on defense. That has to happen if the Blazers are going to be successful.
Running the offense through Nurkic early in games has become a staple for Portland over the last couple weeks. That might not succeed quite as well against Denver as against your garden-variety, center-less NBA team, but the Blazers can’t abandon it entirely. Entering the ball to Nurk and letting him bang against Jokic is important. The Blazers need to try him. They can’t shoot in isolation with guards or forwards, letting Jokic stand around half the game without moving.
But centering the ball on Nurkic isn’t the only approach. The Blazers also need to involve Jokic in multiple screen and roll sets. Jokic will guard them well enough, but he has to come out above the three-point arc to do so, then recover to guard against the roll or grab a rebound on the shot. All those footsteps matter.
Portland can ramp up the intensity if Jokic gets pulled into a switch while defending screens. At that point, the ball-handler needs to penetrate and try to draw contact. Whether the shot goes in—especially during the first three periods—is secondary. Make Jokic defend the drive from arc to rim, expend energy, and perhaps draw a foul. Little moments like that add up over time.
It works the same with Kanter, just in a different zone of the floor. Kanter is the master of offensive rebounds. He should threaten Jokic with same every second he’s on the floor. Make Jokic work physically to grab those boards. Get the rebound and go up into Jokic’s body with the put-back.
The goal here isn’t to contain Jokic as much as to wear him down so his fourth-quarter three-pointers fall short. Ideally, you also want him worrying about his 6th foul as the game dwindles. If the Blazers can accomplish that much, they’ve taken back some of the advantage.
On the other end, denying the ball to Jokic might be a sound strategy. NBA teams usually ask the question, “Do we double-team on the catch or after he puts the ball on the floor?” Jokic will make mincemeat out of both those strategies. The Blazers might want to shade a little towards the illegal side of the defensive scheme, moving a player towards Jokic to front him and deny the pass as their center defends from behind, or moving the center in front and letting help come from behind. Portland isn’t that good at rotating, so they’re not likely to find sustained success with this, or any, scheme. Denver will eventually break it. But ball denial, even if the Nuggets ultimately score by passing elsewhere, will at least get Jokic and the Nuggets out of their rhythm and provide another look for them to worry about.
The final “secret sauce” approach to defending Jokic would be to move him away from the center of the court. Remember the line we drew from the rim straight outward to the arc? Jokic isn’t quite as good when he deviates to one side or the other. Playing on a side of the floor rather than down the middle also limits his passing opportunities somewhat. If the Blazers can get Jokic shooting and passing from an angle instead of dead center, they might at least make him look human.
Either way, the Blazers cannot let Jokic catch in the middle of the court and then react. They don’t have the defensive horsepower; he’s got too many tricks. They need to move him, move the ball, and/or move themselves so that initial centering play isn’t easy, then follow up with a solid recovery towards whatever the Nuggets try next. That initial disruption is critical. If the Blazers can’t manage it, they won’t win.
Given Jokic’s accomplishments and Portland’s defensive woes over the course of the season, it’s not reasonable to expect the Blazers to stop The Joker. Their key to success will be inhibiting him somewhat, making him less effective in the critical fourth periods, and possibly matching his slightly-lessened production with another player (or combination) of their own. If Nurkic and Kanter—or any second scorer for the Blazers—can get close to Jokic’s production, Portland should have an advantage in that outing.
Unless they’re manifestly unequal, playoffs series aren’t won in blocks of games. Each team wins a couple, and the series outcome turns on small moments in the remaining, contested matchups. If Portland comes to play, that’s likely what will happen here. How the Blazers deal with the wrecking ball that is Nikola Jokic will go a lot way to determining how the series goes. They can’t stop that ball from swinging. If they make Denver expend a lot of energy, forcing the Nuggets to deploy it multiple times to get the same effect, they have a chance. At that point, even though Jokic going HAM is a near-certainty, Portland has a chance to win the series all the places where he isn’t. If that happens, they’ll be fine with Denver winning the battle as long as they, themselves win the war.