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The Warriors had Nikola Jokić in their sights in Game 1, and it worked to perfection

They made Jokić work on both ends of the floor.

Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors - Game One Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In the series preview leading up to Game 1 of this matchup between the Golden State Warriors and the Denver Nuggets, this is what I had to say about letting Nikola Jokić “get his”:

“The talent and depth of the Warriors trumps that of the Nuggets. Make no mistake — Aaron Gordon, Will Barton, and Monte Morris aren’t slouches. Forget about them for too long, and they can punish you in all sorts of ways.

“But they’re not Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Jokić will get his numbers, but he could sure use secondary shot creators who can relieve some of the pressure off of him in terms of offensive output. He doesn’t have that right now.”

Jokić finished Game 1 with 25 points on 25 shots (12-of-21 on twos, 0-of-4 on threes), 10 rebounds, and 6 assists, with 48/0/50 shooting splits, only 2 free-throw attempts, and 48.3% True Shooting. It was far from an efficient scoring night from the reigning MVP, who finished the regular season with a 66.1% True Shooting mark.

In all of Jokić’s 34.5 minutes of time on the floor, the Warriors outscored the Nuggets by 19 points.

A big question mark heading into this series was the type of coverage the Warriors would employ against Jokić in the low post (1.17 points per possession in the post, 91st percentile). At times, it seems impossible to fully stifle him, no matter what kind of look you give him — but that is what you’d expect from a transcendent offensive talent.

Single coverage banks on being handsy and physical without crossing that precarious line that leads to fouling. Pushing Jokić off his preferred spots makes him have to work a tad bit harder for his buckets — but more often than not, he almost always finds a way to score despite the difficulty.

Sending a double against him isn’t that much better. His passing as a big man is unmatched. He can do it from both the low and high post, as well as up top in “Delay” sets. He has vision in all sorts of weird and funky ways, and is able to rapidly compute where help is coming from, which teammate is left open, and the type of delivery he wants to execute.

Which is why, in a sense, single coverage is the preferred coverage. There’s truth to the argument of letting Jokić get his numbers (while making him work for them, of course), as long as the non-Jokić contingent aren’t able to thrive off of his unique brand of gravity.

A revolving door of single coverage is also necessary. Letting either one of Kevon Looney or Draymond Green handle the Jokić assignment all night long doesn’t bode well for their physical well being. Additionally, letting Looney handle Jokić places Green in his comfort zone as a roaming help defender.

But when Green has to handle the Jokić assignment, he makes sure to use every bit of his defensive know-how to make life difficult for a man who is taller by around half a foot:

With the Warriors in a zone in the possession above, the Nuggets run slice-cut action to get Jokić in the post against Green, who makes sure to force Jokić to catch it as far away from the rim as possible.

Another important thing to point out: Green establishing a strong base by widening his stance, making it hard for Jokić to push him toward the rim. With Jokić having trouble trying to back down his man, he resorts to footwork, spinning and looking for an angle to get a clean look — but Green keeps his hand up, maintains pressure on Jokić’s lower base, and forces him to have to take a tough hook.

It’s not always going to be successful. Push Jokić, make him have to work using his feet and guile in the post, and it’ll often result in possessions like this:

But that’s who Jokić is as an offensive talent. Like every great scorer, he finds ways to escape from seemingly insurmountable pickles. The key for the Warriors is to tip their cap and hope that Jokić’s fortunes run out in subsequent possessions.

I also wrote in my series preview this about Nemanja Bjelica:

Nemanja Bjelica may sound like a controversial choice, but he’s a substantially better standstill defender (i.e., in the low post) than he is a mobile one (i.e., pick-and-rolls and perimeter switches); don’t be surprised if Bjelica is part of the rotation for this series to eat up some of the Jokić reps.

Indeed, Bjelica was part of Steve Kerr’s 10-man rotation for this game. Bjelica’s shortcomings in the pick-and-roll have been infamous, but this series felt like the perfect opportunity for him to contribute on offense and be less of a sore thumb on defense.

The Nuggets ran the least amount of pick-and-rolls in the league during the regular season (12.5 possessions per game) — slightly fewer than the Warriors’ 13.8 possessions per game, which was 2nd-least in the league. In contrast, the Nuggets ran the 2nd-most post-ups (8.8 per game).

Which is why the Warriors could handle Bjelica being in the rotation. Can Jokić still score over him in the post? Definitely — Jokić can score over just about anyone. But Bjelica is a much better post banger than he is defending in space:

Add the occasional late double from Jokić’s blind side, as Gary Payton II did that garnered him a block, and Bjelica will do his part in pushing Jokić off of his spots to draw out an empty possession. Much like Jokić, Bjelica has deceptively quick hands — he can poke the ball loose or swipe down on the ball on a shot attempt, as seen from the second clip above.

Jokić’s efficiency was successfully contained by the Warriors’ revolving door of personnel. Another factor that may have played a huge part in that was their clear intent on placing Jokić in as many screening actions as possible on the other end of the floor.

Let me preface this by saying that Jokić is far from a terrible defender. He is by no means a deserving All-Defense candidate — that may be taking things a tad too far — but he is probably a notch or two below.

But there are weaknesses left to exploit. Again, as said during the series preview:

“The Nuggets have employed plenty of screen-level coverages — a variation of drop that isn’t as deep as traditional drop, but more conservative than a hedge — when Jokić is involved in the pick-and-roll. Theoretically, this takes away a shooter’s space to pull up and allows the on-ball defender to recover and/or trail, while Jokić contains and eventually recovers to his original assignment.

“But force him to defend in space against someone with enough juice to turn the corner, get downhill, and finish (with the added assistance of some early-offense drag screens) and Jokić will have trouble stopping them if he can’t get a quick swipe in”

The Warriors zeroed in on the Nuggets’ propensity for playing Jokić in drop — both the traditional deep variety, and the slightly more aggressive screen-level variety — to involve him and force him to have to defend in space.

And arguably no one took advantage of such a coverage better than Jordan Poole, who finished with 30 points on 13 shots (4-of-6 on twos, 5-of-7 on threes), a 69/71/88 shooting split, and 90.8% True Shooting.

Poole started in lieu of Stephen Curry. He responded in kind by replicating what Curry has done throughout his storied career: taking advantage of aggressive coverages through sublime passing out of the pick-and-roll.

The Warriors opting to go small with Green at the 5 placed the Nuggets in quite a bind, with Jokić having to defend Green. Green is no individual scoring threat himself, which can make hiding Jokić on him a preferable proposition on the surface.

But Green knows how to be useful as a non-spacer and non-scoring threat. Step-up screens to force Jokić into the action, drag screens to take advantage of Jokić having to step up and defend the ball handler coming around the screen, and wide down-screens off the ball — Green was a screening machine.

Poole and Klay Thompson (19 points, 5-of-10 on threes) were the recipient of some of these solid screens. The Nuggets’ dearth of reliable screen navigators was laid bare for everyone to see, which made mincemeat of Jokić’s drop/screen-level coverages.

Even while Curry continues to get his legs up to pre-injury levels — he finished with 16 points on 5-of-13 shooting (2-of-7 on twos, 3-of-6 on threes) in nearly 22 minutes — he received plenty of backup in the form of Poole and Thompson. This three-man combination played a total of 7 minutes against the Nuggets, during which they outscored opponents by a whopping 29.4 points per 100 possessions, which included an offensive rating of 141.2.

No matter which starting lineup Kerr opts to go with moving forward — Poole starting with Curry on the bench, or vice-versa — it’s imperative that he keeps such a trio on the floor and gives them significant minutes together against a Nuggets team that has no real answer for them.

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