One playoff round after having the unenviable job of guarding Dallas phenom Luka Doncic, whom Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers raved scores like Larry Bird and passes like Jason Kidd, the Clippers are facing another uniquely difficult defensive challenge in their second-round series.
Denver's 7-foot Serbian center, Nikola Jokic, "has all the footwork and the moves of (Hakeem) Olajuwon (and) the lanky and goofy, like goofy intelligence, of Kevin McHale," Rivers said Tuesday. "Shoot, man, he's just good. He's the best passing big that I've seen, I think, ever."
Jokic has averaged 25.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists during the postseason, and 24.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists in three games against the Clippers, who lead the Western Conference semifinal series 2-1 after a 113-107 win Monday in Game 3.
Doncic and Jokic share a Balkan heritage, a sly, patient style of play, and an intelligence that can frustrate opponents.
"Jokic presents the same type of, I don't know, I wouldn't say problems, but he presents the same thing Doncic presents: a lot of flailing," guard Patrick Beverley said Monday after the Clippers' victory, adding that Jokic "puts a lot of pressure on the referees to make the right call."
Beverley went on to praise the "hell of a job" Jokic's primary defender, Ivica Zubac, had done throughout the series, but his "flailing" comment quickly reached the Nuggets.
"Well, I don't listen to Patrick Beverley a whole lot," Denver coach Michael Malone said Tuesday. "If Kawhi Leonard was talking, maybe I might listen to it. Kawhi's a great player.
"But all you got to do is look at the stat sheet. Zubac attempted more free throws than Nikola Jokic (in Game 3). They shot 26 free throws, we shot 10, so I'm not really sure what game Patrick is talking about or looking at, but I really don't warrant and give too much attention to that."
To contain Jokic and the pick-and-roll plays he runs with point guard Jamal Murray, the Clippers have switched coverages, but Jokic has still made 46.7% of his three-point attempts and 55% of his shots inside the three-point arc. Strategies to stop Murray's drives have often left defenders slow to recover against Jokic, who has made seven of his 12 three-point tries when the closest defender is at least 4 feet away.
"Trapping is a good thing for us, but then you end up with Jokic with the ball in his hands going four-on-three when we all know how good his passing skills are and his ability to create for the others, and that's definitely a big challenge when you trap on a pick and roll," Zubac said. "And when I'm in 'drop,' it's harder when he pops.
"They're a good team, and every coverage is not going to be perfect, but we've just got to keep mixing it up and keep playing hard."
Jokic's oft-surgical passing isn't limited to the half-court offense. Multiple times he has collected a rebound and, in one motion with just one hand, flicked the ball 50 feet or farther down the court to an open teammate running in transition. Sensing the Clippers were slow to jog back on defense after a turnover Monday, Jokic quickly threw an inbounds pass that led to a Denver dunk.
That awareness by Jokic, and the lapse by the Clippers, is why Rivers called reviewing game film of this series "very frustrating to watch." Still, there were highlights buried inside Game 3's footage. Jokic has averaged 4.7 turnovers this series, including five Monday.
He turned the ball over three times during the second quarter, including twice having his dribble stolen by guard Lou Williams during a run that proved critical to the Clippers' victory, as it pulled them within two points of Denver at halftime.
"We had three turnovers in that 12-2 run, and all three were Nikola and he's just got to understand, every time he puts the ball on the floor, they're coming," Malone said. "Whether he needs to spin dribble or whether it's just him just catching in the post and dribbling, they are double-teaming him every time he puts the ball down. So he has to be aware of that."
(Greif reported from Los Angeles.)
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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): Nikola Jokic