Nikola Jokic’s beautiful game at heart of Nuggets’ Game 1 win: ‘That’s how I learned to play basketball’

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) reaches for a rebound next to Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo during the second half of Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, Pool)

(TNS)— Nikola Jokic had already decoded Miami’s vaunted zone defense for a Game 1 triple-double, but there was still another basketball lesson to digest.

Most of Denver’s locker room had cleared out after the Nuggets’ 104-93 win when an assistant coach grabbed a blue dry-erase board marker and headed to Jack White’s locker — the stall stationed directly to Jokic’s right.


There, in the back of White’s locker and before Jokic was fully dressed, the assistant diagrammed a half-court set. He depicted how Miami had tried to stymie Jokic, generally with Bam Adebayo, while illustrating all the various actions available to him.

It was, effectively, Jokic beginning his preparations for Game 2, a counter adjustment to the Heat’s impending counter.

“Yeah, we’re definitely going to have to go to school on it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They are in a pretty good rhythm, especially in that first half.”

Jokic finished Game 1 with a 27-point, 14-assist, 10-rebound triple-double to overwhelm Miami’s undersized frontcourt. In the first half, he happily went to the locker room with 10 assists and only three shot attempts. At that point, the Nuggets had already established a 17-point lead.

His passing, in spotting mismatches, exploiting Denver’s size, baiting double-teams and seizing angles, was sublime.

“I don’t force it,” Jokic said. “I never force it, I think. … I just take whatever the game gives me.”

Jokic lauded all the wrinkles Miami unleashed defensively, but the reality is that, whether the Heat deploys a zone or man-to-man, Denver’s offensive octopus is likely going to solve it.

The Heat can’t make up for the size discrepancy Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. present, and they don’t have an obvious cover for Jamal Murray, who reeled off 26 points and 10 assists himself. It’s the fluidity and the interplay, the chemistry and the selflessness, that makes the Nuggets a nightmare to cover.

After Game 1, it appeared the Nuggets had way too many levers to pull.

“That’s how I learned to play basketball, and I think it’s really nice to play — it’s really hard to guard when you don’t know who’s going to attack and how to defend when everybody is moving, everybody is doing something,” Jokic said. “I think it’s a really nice brand of basketball that we have, and everybody buys in.”

The secret sauce is that Jokic’s attitude, even if he won’t take credit for it, has become pervasive throughout the Nuggets. Not only in the free-wheeling manner that they share the ball but in the way that, for the most part, no one seems to care who gets the credit.

“I mean, it’s equal opportunity for the most part,” Gordon said. “But we’re going through big fella. So big fella makes the right play, makes the right read, and he’s just so smart, he’s so cerebral out there, such a floor general, and (Jamal) is a floor general, too. If you make the right read or make the right cut or set the right screen, you’re going to be open, and the ball moves, the ball finds the open man. The open man is the right play, and that’s how we play the game, and it’s a fun way to play.”

In the second half, Jokic’s baskets (five) outnumbered his dimes (four). But before anyone deems him selfish, the truth is that they were, again, the right basketball plays. He buried a 3-pointer off a Murray double-team.

He finished off a Porter assist. He shot when he found himself unguarded in the heart of Miami’s zone. And then late in the fourth, after Miami had chiseled the deficit to single-digits, Jokic buried two soft jumpers to ice the game.

“Nikola never tries to impose his will or force things that aren’t there,” head coach Michael Malone said. “He’s going to read the game. He’s going to make the right play. Most importantly he’s going to make every one of his teammates better.”

It’s the simple formula he’s ridden for years. And now, it’s got the Nuggets closer to a title than they’ve ever been.

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