Nuggets vs. Celtics: How Nikola Jokic picked apart Boston down the stretch in possible NBA Finals preview



There’s been a lot of talk about the unreliability of the Boston Celtics’ late-game offense of late. It’s a fair conversation. The Celtics, from 10,000 feet, have been pretty successful in clutch situations this season, but their offense, as a general rule, tends to feel tougher as the game gets tighter. 

The Denver Nuggets are the opposite. 

This is not about numbers. I don’t care about clutch per-100s or point differentials or even wins and losses at this juncture. Denver’s clutch record is irrelevant. The whole regular season is largely irrelevant for these Nuggets. 

This is about Nikola Jokic and his reliability and the inevitability. In particular, his late-game creation come playoff time, which we got another high-profile taste of in Denver’s 115-109 win over the Celtics on Thursday night in what felt every bit like a Finals preview. 

It’s not to say Jokic is Denver’s only source of pressure offense. Jamal Murray is one of the most reliable clutch performers and toughest individual shot makers in the league. If you’re asking me to put my money on Murray or Jayson Tatum, or any other Celtics player for that matter, to make big shots down the stretch of big games, it’s not even a debate. It’s Murray. 

Still, those are often tough shots Murray has to create and make. They’re the kinds of shots, frankly, that Boston has to rely on too often. Jokic creates easy offense. Get him the ball at the free throw line and he will either work his way into an easy finish if you don’t double team him, or create an even easier shot for one of his teammates if you do. 

For all the nuanced basketball discussions we like to have, it really is that simple for Jokic. Go ahead and choose your preferred poison, you’re dead either way. 

The Celtics tried different antidotes to stay alive. Five different defenders — Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Jrue Holiday, Kristaps Porzingis, and for some reason Payton Pritchard — all took their turn trying to defend Jokic one-on-one as Boston resisted doubling to negate Jokic’s passing and force him to score, which, predictably, he did with ease. 

Here Holiday gets the business:

If you think Holiday is too small to hold his ground against Jokic, you’re not wrong. The problem is, seven-foot Porzingis is even easier prey:

You’ll notice on that last bucket over Porzingis that Holiday, who was accounting for Aaron Gordon on the weak-side baseline, didn’t come over to help even as his teammate was getting bullied under the basket. Why not? Because a few minutes earlier Porzingis was the helper, and he did leave Gordon to double up Jokic late in the clock, and all it did was open up an uncontested dunk. 

So now you have all this in your head as the game winds down to the final seconds. Nothing the Celtics had done had worked against Jokic — who finished with 32 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists and scored or assisted on four of Denver’s final five field goals — but they were still within two points with 25 seconds to play. All they needed was one defensive stop to get the ball back with a chance to tie or win the game. 

This is the inevitability of Jokic. When it’s time for a game to swing, it’s going his way. Jokic overpowers Porzingis with a couple forceful spins, and Holiday, having just watched Jokic finish a pivoting lay-in over Porzingis a minute earlier, can’t stomach letting the same thing happen again. He leaves Gordon along the baseline and Jokic sees it immediately. He knows he’s going to toss up a lob to Gordon before he even finishes his second spin. It’s all clockwork. 

If the Celtics were in this same position, needing a big bucket in a high-pressure, late-game possession, there’s a good chance they wind up taking a contested jumper. They might make it. They have a lot of tough shot makers, even if Tatum’s clutch shooting numbers are hard to look at. 

But the Nuggets have Jokic, and because of that, they don’t have to settle for tough. They can get easy offense whenever they want it. Whenever they need it. Give the best player in the world the ball, wait for defenders to show whatever desperate hand they decide to play on that particular possession, then sit back and watch him pull ace after ace out of his sleeve. 

It’s only because Jokic is so great, and because he has developed sixth-sense chemistry with Gordon in particular, that this all looks so easy. It’s not to suggest this stuff isn’t hard. But it is easy for Jokic. And if these two teams were to meet for the title in June, despite Boston being probably the more collectively talented team and having set the regular-season pace, this reliability of Jokic’s late-game creation still makes Denver the team to beat.  





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