MIAMI — Nikola Jokic’s 32-point, 21-rebound, 10-assist stat line in Game 3 of the NBA Finals stole all the headlines. And it should have. It was a historic game. It was the first 30-20-10 game in NBA Finals history. It’s absolutely a game that will be front and center in Nikola Jokic’s Hall-of-Fame highlight reel.
But when you peel back the layers from Jokic’s all-time Finals performance, there was a lot more to his night.
Jokic’s defense was also phenomenal. He was everywhere. He bothered shots at the rim, threw Bam Adebayo off his game, and affected Miami’s offense all night. After rewatching Game 3, I think you can call it one of, if not the best defensive games of Jokic’s career.
“He’s an elite defender,” Jamal Murray said of Jokic on Thursday.
The Heat only scored 94 points in Game 3. Some of that had to do with Miami shooting just 11-35 (31.4%) from 3-point range, but the Heat also only shot (8-23) 34% in the restricted area. In the win, Jokic contested a game-high 21 shots — the second-highest contest total from Game 3 was Bam Adebayo, who recorded 14 contests. Jokic recorded two blocks in his 44 minutes too.
He sent this Adebayo shot back in the third quarter after flirting with Jimmy Butler’s dribble just enough to force Butler into passing — and I think that’s exactly what Jokic is wanting to happen here. He’s trying to encourage Butler into passing this off.
Then in the fourth quarter, watch how Jokic gets out to the 3-point line to prevent Duncan Robinson from attempting the 3 and then gets back to the elbow to block Kyle Lowry’s shot.
For all the knocks against Jokic as a classic “rim protector,” he bothered Butler enough on this shot to get him to miss badly.
It looks like Max Strus has a wide-open layup in the third quarter, but Jokic shuts down his drive once he gets to the basket. Another underrated part of Jokic’s defense is that by now he’s an expert on how to defend without fouling. I think Jokic knows that Strus, a 3-point shooter who rarely ventures inside the arc, isn’t the type of finisher that converts this look consistently over or through a contest.
Through three Finals games, the Heat are shooting 53.7% from the restricted area. That’s down from the 64.2% that Miami shot from the restricted area in its three playoff series prior to the start of the Finals.
Adebayo shot 52-135 (38.5%) from mid-range in the regular season. Then, he shot 14-39 (35.9%) from mid-range in the playoffs. So entering the Finals, the Nuggets’ strategy on Adebayo was clear: If he wants to try and beat you with mid-range jumpers, let that happen.
That strategy was tested in Games 1 and 2 when Adebayo shot 6-8 on mid-range jumpers. Then in Game 3, the Nuggets stuck with their game plan and those numbers came back down to earth. Adebayo shot 2-5 on mid-range shots. It was clear that Jokic was not only OK with Adebayo taking these shots but was even trying to back off and bait him into shooting them.
Adebayo shot 7-21 from the floor in Game 3. He shot 3-9 from the restricted area and 2-7 in the paint (non-restricted area). When Jokic was his primary defender, Adebayo shot 4-13.
These are shots that Jokic knows the Nuggets can live with.
Rebounding sometimes isn’t thought of as a defensive skill, but it is, and Jokic is one of the best defensive rebounders in the NBA. He’s shown why in these Finals. Jokic has recorded double-digit rebounds in all three Finals games. Off course, he had 21 boards in Game 2.
Cody Zeller has great positioning for this rebound in Game 3, but Jokic just moves him out of the way. Jokic is so, so strong. You see just how strong he is on this play.
Jokic fights off both Adebayo and Butler for this rebound in the second quarter.
“He has great awareness, great IQ, great anticipation, tremendous hands to break things up,” Michael Malone said of Jokic after Game 3. “…His fingerprints were all over that game.”
Jokic does so many things on the defensive end of the floor that help the Nuggets win and helped Denver blow Miami out in Game 3. You just have to look for them. When he wants to be, Jokic is an extremely impactful defender.
In the playoffs, and in these Finals, Jokic has shown up defensively. Overall, the Nuggets have the sixth-best defense in the playoffs. With Jokic on the floor, Denver is holding Miami to 109.3 points per 100 possession through three Finals games. That means the Nuggets are posting the numbers of what would have equated to the best defense in the NBA during the regular season with Jokic on the court through three Finals games. Cleveland had the best defense in the NBA this season and held opponents to 109.9 points per 100 possession this year.
These playoffs could be when the narrative around Jokic’s defense officially starts to shift.
“When you look at Nikola, so many people just use an eye test to debate whether he is a good defender or not,” said Malone. “That is just almost unjust, if you will, because you have to get past the eye test. You have to look at all the things that he does.”