Let’s step into the film room and look at how the Clippers are defending Nuggets star Nikola Jokic in the pick-and-pop. Despite being heavily favored in the series, and having a 2-1 lead after their game 3 win, the Clippers feel a bit shaky–to my view, Denver has played better than LA in the last two games after game 1’s fatigued blowout.
Doc Rivers has his fair share of concerns through three games: Patrick Beverley is battling a minutes restriction, the Clippers’ defensive effort has been inconsistent, their second-unit lineup is significantly undersized and struggles on the glass, and the team has hemorrhaged points and offensive rebounds with Montrezl Harrell on the floor in the playoffs. But particularly important to their success in this series is their ability to defend Nikola Jokic on the pick and pop.
Jokic has shot the ball exceptionally well in the playoffs this year, totaling 29 makes on 61 attempts across Denver’s 10 playoff games thus far–that’s 6 attempts per 36 minutes at 47.5%, compared to 31.4% on 3.9 attempts per 36 minutes during the regular season. Despite struggling with a wrist injury, in games 2 and 3 against the Clippers, he’s been a flamethrower: 7-13 from deep with a burst in each game (and one of those misses from 80 feet away at the end of a quarter). Within that, he’s made a staggering 5 of 7 threes in the pick-and-pop.
In part, you’d expect Jokic to have a fairly good time shooting the basketball against the Clippers: his primary defender is Ivica Zubac, a sound but slow-footed big man who prefers to stay inside on defense and often struggles to effectively contest the shots of floor-spacing bigs. But the Clippers’ scheme actually exacerbates the issue in this match-up.
When Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray is running the pick-and-pop with Jokic, the Clippers are selling out to contain him, with Paul George chasing him over the top of the screen and Zubac settling into drop coverage. The goal of drop coverage is to prevent scenarios where an explosive guard drives past the containing big man and reaches the rim, instead keeping the rim protector deep and baiting attacking guards into pulling up for mid-range jumpers. By having George (and others) aggressively chase Murray, the Clippers are trying to sandwich him and keep him away from comfortable pull-ups in the mid-range too–but the cost of committing two defenders to Murray is leaving openings elsewhere.
Watch a couple of Jokic’s game 3 jumpers, and see how deep Zubac is dropping back to contain Murray–and how much ground that leaves him to cover to get back to Jokic to contest his shots:
In the first play, Zubac is all the way down with a foot on the block to discourage a drive from Gary Harris, who has the ball here–and if you look at the angle Kawhi Leonard is defending from as he chases Harris, it’s clear that without Zubac’s drop, Harris would have a free lane to the rim. But the cost of that positioning against Harris is that Zubac is left almost 20 feet away from Jokic’s pop, and he’s not going to be able to recover in time to take away that shot unless he flies out to the perimeter out of control and lets Jokic drive past him. It’s not a good position for a slow-footed big man to be in.
With all three other Nuggets on the weak side of the floor and Jokic popping to the middle, this is a play where the Clippers need to bring Zubac help from the weak side. In a perfect world, Paul George would come over to contest the Jokic shot, with Beverley and Morris rotating on the weak side and Zubac staying home in an effective switch onto Millsap under the basket. But George and Beverley get lost in a weak-side action between Murray and Jerami Grant, and Zubac is left on an island to both contain the dribble penetration and step out to cover the shooter.
On the second play, the Clippers play the same coverage–but maybe they shouldn’t have. Again, all three other Nuggets are on the weak side, but this time Harris brings the ball towards the middle, meaning he is driving in the direction of help defenders while Jokic drifts away from them. Here, I’d like to see Zubac stay home on Jokic and let the weak side defenders take care of helping. In fact, you can see Paul George sagging off of Jerami Grant to contain the Harris drive–Zu’s drop isn’t needed, and it pulls him out of position to contest the Jokic shot.
Even against the Clippers’ more athletic bigs, the drop coverage puts them in trouble:
With Lou Williams chasing Nuggets backup point guard Monte Morris off the screen, Montrezl Harrell is playing drop–he starts higher than Zubac but backpedals as Morris turns the corner to contain the drive.
It’s easy to watch this play and criticize Harrell’s lack of effort, but the reason he doesn’t attempt a closeout on Jokic is because he’s not really in a position to. Schematically, the Clippers’ bigs are being asked to be in two places at once: containing the ball handler’s drive and contesting Jokic’s shot.
There’s a much simpler solution: make Trez’s life easier by sharing the defensive burden among Shamet and Leonard, the two weak side defenders. Look at how Landry Shamet is positioned near the elbow as his man drifts to the corner–he’s already trusting Kawhi Leonard to cover the skip pass over his head. What the Clippers need to do is have Shamet commit to taking away the Jokic pop. Leonard is the right combination of lengthy, smart, and talented to cover two guys on the weak side while Harrell recovers, and if Harrell knows that the pop isn’t his responsibility, it frees him up to dive down to Torrey Craig as Leonard recovers to the corner.
Rather than utilize rotations on their back line, the Clippers attempted at times to rush the Nuggets’ offensive process by trapping the ball handler, but it was largely a disaster. Taking Murray out of the game worked well for the Clippers (averaging 27 points on 50% FG and 47% 3PT in the playoffs, he was just 5-17 for 14 points in game 3), but letting Jokic (who had 32 points and 8 assists in game 3) dominate it nearly left them down 2-1 in the series.
When the Clippers trapped Jamal Murray, life was easy on Nikola Jokic:
There’s no good answer for the Clippers once the ball comes out of the trap and finds Jokic in the middle of the floor. If Marcus Morris steps up to take away Jokic’s floater, Millsap is getting a bounce pass for a dunk. If Lou Williams slides in to close off that passing angle, the ball is going to the corner for a high-percentage look at a three.
Jokic is the best passing big man in the NBA (he’s probably simply the best big man in the NBA, but the passing part is important), and unlike other big men he will make the right play to find the open man if you throw too many numbers at him:
Here, as Jackson and Harrell step up to trap the ball, Jokic dives and is playing 2-on-3 against Landry Shamet and Kawhi Leonard. When Shamet steps up to stop the ball, there’s nothing left for Leonard to do: he’s either conceding a layup or an open three.
Frankly, as critical as I am of both Jackson and Harrell defensively, there isn’t much that they can do here if the play call was to trap Murray at 40 feet. That action takes both of them so far out of the play that even the league’s best defenders wouldn’t be able to recover.
The answer here isn’t a smarter rotation, it’s to not bring these hyper-aggressive traps on Murray. I get why they’re doing it: Murray is capable of explosive scoring nights (36, 50, 42, and 50 in the first round), and if you totally freeze him out the Nuggets are going to have a hard time outscoring you. But if the gameplan is “let’s force the ball out of Murray’s hands and make Nikola Jokic beat us 4-on-3,” he will, and you’ll be going home in the second round. Taking Murray out of games is an admirable goal, and Paul George did a phenomenal job on him in game 3. But you can’t overplay him to the extent that you let Jokic tear your remaining defenders to shreds.
In the fourth quarter, the Clippers started to look towards switching the pick-and-pop. On this breakdown, you can see Zubac point towards Jokic to direct Paul George to cover the pop instead of chasing the ball (and then Zu’s frustrated reaction when Jokic hits an open shot):
Even when the pass goes to Jokic, Zubac doesn’t commit to the closeout because he’s expecting George to–and vice versa. It’s impossible to know who is wrong here without knowing what the instructions were in the huddle, but it’s clear that switching this action wasn’t the plan earlier in the game and was an adjustment the Clippers made on the fly.
Just moments after this breakdown, George and Zubac successfully pulled off the switch:
Here, we pick up the play after Zubac and George have executed the switch, as Zubac attempts to contain Murray’s drive. While Murray is much quicker than Zubac, LA has help on the strong side of the floor. Leonard is more than capable of digging in to stop Murray’s drive and recovering to Jerami Grant on the perimeter, and if Grant is catching the ball with 4 seconds left on the shot clock, the defensive possession is going well for LA.
He drives away from Leonard’s closeout and takes a pull-up jumper over Paul George, with Leonard and Zubac both able to recover to the paint to secure good defensive rebounding positions against Jokic.
The team defense here is sound: instead of asking Zubac to be in two places at once, the responsibility for covering Denver’s most potent offensive action is distributed across the team, with Leonard helping Zubac handle his mismatch, George helping Leonard when he’s beat on the recovery closeout, and Zubac dropping into the lane to block out the man George had been guarding.
LA also had success switching the pick-and-pop in the third quarter, when Murray forced a switch by cutting back to his left after taking the screen moving right:
Here, Zubac picks up the ball and Patrick Beverley takes away the kick-out pass to Jokic. Then, as Murray pulls the ball out to hunt the Jokic-Beverley mismatch, Pat quickly switches with Paul George onto Grant in the corner and lets George step up to cover Jokic, who commits an offensive foul.
Obviously, all’s well that ends well, but LA won’t bait Jokic into a charge every time down the court. Still, this is much better process than the breakdowns covered above. Zubac’s drop coverage successfully contains the Murray drive, and while he has an advantage pulling the ball out and either shooting over Zu or driving past him, the shot clock is down to 7 seconds, freeing Zubac to pressure and risk being beat.
Similarly, even if Jokic isn’t called for a foul on the catch, you’ll live with him having the ball at 15 feet against Paul George with 5 seconds on the shot clock. That’s not to say Jokic won’t be able to score from that position–like I said, he’s probably the best big man in the NBA. He’s gonna get his points. But right now, any Jokic shot that isn’t single coverage on the block or a wide-open three is looking pretty good. He’s capable of making tough mid-range fallaways, contested runners, and awkward hook shots, but he’ll miss his fair share of those too.
The Nuggets had the 5th-best offensive rating in the NBA during the regular season, and Jokic’s ability to create for himself and others everywhere on the floor was the primary reason why. You aren’t going to stop him over the course of a series. His 15 points in game 1 was tied for his lowest output in the playoffs this year, and his 32 in game 3 was his third 30-point night. In 24 career playoff games, he’s averaged 25.2 points and shot 44% from deep, so regardless of his regular-season shooting percentages, you better guard him out there.
In situations like the ones outlined above where the Clippers executed switches and rotations, Jokic will score, but he’ll have to work harder and take lower-efficiency shots. When he’s abandoned on the pick-and-pop or left to create in 4-on-3 situations, he’s going to light you up without breaking a sweat. The Clippers can live with the first kind of Jokic bucket, but if they continue to concede the latter kind, they may very well die by them.