X’s and Mo’s: Genius of Nikola Jokić and how he and Nuggets make it look easy

Nikola Jokić is a genius. There is no question about that.

I want to dive into how much of a genius he is, how defenses are at his mercy when he has the ball and how his teammates are playing off him so well. It is what powers the Denver Nuggets.  

We can all agree that Jokić is one of the best basketball players on the planet, if not the best. When we think there is not much more to discuss regarding his skills, Jokić does something else that blows your mind. Like this one-handed, full-court water polo pass for a dunk:

Jokić has recorded four straight triple-doubles since the All-Star break. Against the Washington Wizards, he grabbed 19 rebounds, dished 15 assists and oh, by the way, did not miss any of his 10 field-goal attempts. Against Portland, he had a 29-point, 15-rebound and 14-assist night. Then, in the big showdown against the Golden State Warriors, he did this: 32, 16 and 16. And in the Nuggets’ last game against the Sacramento Kings, Jokić “only” had 14 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in a blowout win. 

Jokić has shot 66.7 percent from the field since the All-Star break. In all four games, he had a triple-double before the fourth quarter. 

Of Jokić’s 19 triple-doubles this season, 11 of them came after three-quarters of play. He is racking up these numbers with crazy efficiency. He also joins LeBron James and Russell Westbrook in having a triple-double against every NBA team they have faced. 

The hardest part of pulling off a triple-double is getting the assists. That requires getting your teammates to cooperate when they’re set up. Aaron Gordon’s, Jamal Murray’s and the Nuggets’ ability to read and play off Jokić puts them over the top. 

Sometimes, it is almost a telepathic connection, like when Gordon sets a ball screen for Jokić above the break against the Wizards. Jokić sees that the paint is wide open and makes eye contact with Gordon, who slips the screen and receives a perfectly placed behind-the-back pass off the dribble.  

The stylish dime is the cherry on top, but the recognition that the defense is not protecting the rim and the silent communication with Gordon makes it nearly impossible to defend. 

The Jokić-Gordon connection is a strong one. They connect regularly: 1.6 of Jokić’s assists go to Gordon. Gordon’s constant movement pairs perfectly with Jokić’s style. 

Even if the defense takes one misstep, Jokić and Gordon are ready to react. Against the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver gets Jerami Grant switched onto Jokić, Deandre Ayton takes one step toward helping Grant in the post, Gordon cuts down the middle and Jokić throws a lob for a reverse jam. 

As good as that connection is, Jokić has an unbelievable two-man game with Murray. They have been teammates for eight seasons and have developed the perfect chemistry of playing off each other. 

Back-to-back possessions against the Wizards showed this. In the first clip, Murray comes off a handoff from Jokić. Richaun Holmes steps up to Murray with Deni Avdija working over the top of the screen. Murray hits Jokić with a pocket bounce pass for the floater.

On the next play, Murray comes off a high Jokić screen. This time, Holmes stays tethered to Jokić and Avdija takes one step towards Jokić, giving Murray enough space for the pull-up jumper. 

This leads to later in the game when Murray fakes coming off the handoff to back cut his defender, and Jokić finds him for the layup in the second quarter. 

Gravity is a concept generally reserved for Stephen Curry and other great shooters, but Jokić has his gravity that his teammates have learned how to use to their advantage.

Jokić gets the ball in the mid-post, and Christian Braun cuts through to the weak side. The difference is that he does not clear out and stops at the weak block. Once his man Matisse Thybulle comes to double-team, Braun flashes. And despite a triple-team, Jokić fires a no-look strike to Braun for the bucket. 

Jokić is a basketball savant. It feels like he sees everything that happens on the court. He bends defenses with a look one way and can fire off a pass the other. 

More importantly, Jokić’s teammates are working with him. Their off-ball movement makes it hard for defenses to key in on the two-time NBA MVP. It is why some teams decide to make Jokić a scorer by guarding him one-on-one and staying home with the other Nuggets, making the assists part of the triple-double difficult. That strategy only works if you can stop Jokić.

No one has been able to yet. 

(Photo of Nikola Jokić: Amanda Loman / Getty Images)

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