Warriors worst nightmare: Denver’s Nikola Jokic

League MVP poses major threat in the first round of the playoffs

By John Krolik

Special to The Examiner

It’s official. The Warriors will be facing the Nuggets in the first round of the NBA playoffs. They should have a fairly easy time advancing if they can contain Denver’s star center, Nikola Jokic. Unfortunately, that’s much easier said than done.

Any discussion about the Nuggets has to begin and end with Jokic, last year’s MVP. There’s a very good chance he’ll take the trophy this year and make it back-to-back wins. He leads the Nuggets in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He carried the Nuggets to the playoffs even though Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. missed the entire season with injuries.

Jokic isn’t the most explosive athlete, but there’s nothing he can’t do on the court. He’s 7 feet tall and 284 pounds, in other words a true center. He’s not afraid to use that size. If he gets a smaller defender on him, he has no issue with bullying him under the basket and flipping in an ugly shot. He’s a threat in the pick-and-pop game, shooting a respectable 33% from beyond the arc.

He has impeccable “touch,” that ephemeral quality that allows some players to be able to make any shot from any angle. If he gets the ball in the paint, he’s able to find a way to get the ball in the basket by any means necessary. He’s a monster on the offensive boards. Anytime the Nuggets miss, Jokic is a threat to save the possession with a tip-in. He has the full package of post-up moves. Not only can he score on conventional post-up shots, but if he’s well-defended he can turn around and fire up a roof-scraping fadeaway that goes in far more often than it should. He’s even got a face-up game. In the half-court or in transition, he can beat a defender or draw a foul with some funky and effective slow-motion footwork. If he does get fouled, he’s an 81% free-throw shooter.

Of course, scoring isn’t the best part of his game. Jokic is a true point center, arguably the best passing true big man of all time. The Nuggets’ offense revolves around giving the ball to Jokic, finding open spaces by cutting or spotting up and scoring off a pinpoint pass. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s how the Warriors play offense when Draymond Green is on the court. The key difference is that while Green is a reluctant shooter, especially in the half-court, Jokic is a deadly scorer who nearly always demands a double-team. Even though no Nugget other than Jokic averaged more than five assists per game or more than 15 points per game, Denver still finished the season with the sixth-highest offensive efficiency in the league. The dilemma of shutting down Jokic the passer and Jokic the scorer at the same time was simply too much for most of the league’s defenses.

Jokic was more or less himself in the four games the Nuggets played against the Warriors this season. He did struggle with his perimeter shot. He shot just 16.7% from beyond the arc against the Warriors and 51.9% from the field. Both of those are fairly well below his season averages of 33% shooting from deep and 58.3% shooting from the field.

The bad news is that Jokic was able to leverage his size extremely well against the Warriors’ undersized frontline. He averaged 15.8 rebounds per game against Golden State this season, which is even better than his overall average of 13.8. He dished out 8.8 assists per game against the Warriors, as compared to his season average of 7.9. And he was able to bully his way to 28 points per game, slightly above his season average of 27.1 points. Considering how much trouble he had with his shot when he played the Warriors, that’s concerning.

The Warriors finished the season with the best defensive rating in the league. However, Jokic might be their worst nightmare – an elite center the size of a cement mixer with a jaw-dropping array of skills. Guarding Jokic is one of the toughest puzzles in the NBA, and Steve Kerr and the Warriors’ band of undersized but skilled defenders will have to solve it if they want to advance to the next round.

John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.

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