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Nikola Jokic showed signs of defensive improvement in the season opener

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Quick deep dive on game 1

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Nikola Jokic, PnR stopper

One of the more encouraging things to come out of the first game of the season for the Denver Nuggets was the improved pick-and-roll (PnR) defense of Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets seem to have tweaked the way that they are using him in the PnR, having him defend further up toward the level of the screen as opposed to dropping him back below the level of the screen like he often did last season.

In this video below, there are two slightly different examples of this change. In the first clip, Jokic meets Tobias Harris right at the three-point line. By sliding his feet well and using his long arms and deceptively quick hands to force Harris to use negative dribbles (dribbles that don’t go anywhere), Jokic is able to disrupt the play long enough for Will Barton to recover back onto the ball.

In the second clip, the ball-handler is Patrick Beverley who is better at getting to the rim than Harris and worse at pulling up for three off of the dribble. The screen is also set a bit higher which means Jokic is forced to contain the PnR in an even wider area. He does a nice job of still playing up on the ball without over-extending himself and getting beat off of the dribble.

In the clip below, Jokic is able to force Harris into an airball because of his anticipation of the screen and by playing up at the level of the screen. He jumps out at Harris as soon as he catches the ball and gives a great contest of the shot.

There were several possessions where Jokic was forced to contain multiple PnRs on the same possession. These plays are especially difficult for a big because they require the defender to cover a lot of ground. Watch how well Jokic anticipates the screens, gets in position to meet the ball handler at the level of the screen, and then recovers quickly back to Gortat. In the second clip, Jokic also does an excellent job of recovering backwards, cutting off the driving lane and forcing a mid-range pull-up. These are solid defensive possessions for Jokic and they result in the Clippers taking bad shots.

One of the reasons Jokic was able to play up on the screens is because the backside defenders did a great job of rotating early onto the rolling big man. Here, watch how well Gary Harris slides over to tag the role guy while still being in position to close out on Lou Williams. Also of note is Jamal Murray getting his hands up into passing lanes once the ball-handler picks up his dribble.

Jokic wasn’t perfect. Twice in a row he lost Montrezl Harrell after doing a great job of containing the PnR. Some of this is about footwork. Jokic has a tendency to twist and turn in strange directions when defending in help side, far away from the ball. But mostly, Jokic seems to be a player who is much more locked in when he’s in the middle of the action. In both clips, Jokic relaxes for a split second and that is all that a hustle player like Harrell needs to grab the drop-off or offensive rebound.

Double Pindown Magic

If you’ve read my columns or listened to the Locked on Nuggets podcast for long enough, you know that I am a huge fan of using the Nuggets in double high screens, placing both bigs at the top of the key or on the wing and using them both to set staggered screens on the ball. Last night the Nuggets got back to back buckets for Gary Harris off of a double pindown action. Teams will often run the same action two or three times in a row, adding a little tweak to keep the defense off balance. Here, no tweak is needed. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Giving up the mismatch

My biggest pet peeve as a basketball player is when a guard cuts through to the strong side when the post player has a clear advantage. Jamal Murray gave a great example of this early in the game last night. Jokic was able to rim run and pin Tobias Harris deep in the paint, forcing Marcin Gortat to switch out onto a guard and giving Jokic a size advantage in the post. This is an A+ start to a possession. The defense is scrambled and the Nuggets put the Clippers in a bind when they get the entry pass to Jokic with 19 seconds left on the shot clock.

Murray sees that Gortat is lost so he cuts - the right decision. Jokic actually misses a skip pass to Gary Harris that would’ve been the best option, instead electing to hit Will Barton who was open enough and who had just hit back-to-back buckets. Barton hesitated for whatever reason.

But the mistake happens when Murray decides to exit through to the strong side. When he does that, Gortat is able to switch back onto Jokic and the advantage is lost. The better option would’ve been for Murray to exit on the weak side, dragging Gortat with him. Keeping the big switched onto Murray is a top priority in that situation because it maintains the mismatch and it forces the rim protector to stay out on the perimeter. All of Murray’s focus in that possession should have be centered around keeping the mismatch.