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The threat of Nikola Jokić's three-point shot has revived the Nuggets' offense

Harrison Wind Avatar
January 13, 2020

It took just three and a half minutes for the threat of Nikola Jokic’s three-point shot to bend the Clippers’ defense.

Early in the first quarter of the Nuggets’ 114-104 win over the Clippers, Jokic recieved a pass on the right wing from Jamal Murray and slowly went into his shooting motion as Ivica Zubac ran out to contest him from beyond the arc. Jokic shot-faked, got Zubac up in the air, took two dribbles towards the basket, and forced Patrick Beverley to vacate his primary assignment on the opposite wing, Gary Harris, and step up as the next line of defense. Jokic rifled a two-handed chest pass that hit Harris in the numbers as Denver’s two-guard drifted to the corner. Harris rose, fired, and knocked in his first triple of the night.

“That’s why he’s a great player. He’s going to take what the defense gives him,” Michael Malone said referencing the first-quarter sequence following the Nuggets’ win.

Defenses have to pick their poison with Jokic. In the post, either guard him 1-on-1 and make him beat you on the block, or send help and force the Nuggets’ other shooters to knock down open jumpers. When he’s out beyond the arc, defenders either back off the All-NBA big man, try to muck up Denver’s cutting lanes, and have Jokic beat them with his three-point shot, or contest his jumper and potentially fall victim to his passing if he slithers into the lane.

When it comes to defending him from beyond the arc, defenses this season have most-often chose to try and let Jokic beat them with his jumper. For the first couple months of the season, that proved to be the right formula as Jokic shot just 21.4% from three-point range in October and followed that up by converting on only 23.6% of his triples in November.

But Jokic has found his rhythm since the calendar flipped to December and Zubac’s decision to run him off the three-point line in the first quarter Sunday represented just how much the tide has turned for the Nuggets’ center from beyond the arc. Since Dec. 1, Jokic is shooting a blistering 42.2% from three-point range on 4.1 attempts per game.

Behind his three-point shot and steady post play (Jokic is averaging 1.03 points per possession on post-ups this season, a mark which places him in the NBA’s 77th percentile in that statistic), Denver’s offense has taken off. Over the Nuggets’ first 17 games of the season when Jokic shot 23.2% from three-point range, Denver was just the 18th-best offense in the league. But since Dec. 1, the Nuggets have the NBA’s second-best offense. The resurgence of his three-point shot has transformed Denver’s attack.

“That opens up everything else,” Malone said of the threat of Jokic’s three-pointer.

It’s a development that came at just the right time. Will Barton is shooting 29.2% from 3 since Dec. 1. Jamal Murray is only 32 of 105 (30.5%) from distance since that date and Harris is converting on just 29.1% of his triples over that same stretch. The struggles of three of the Nuggets’ four most-frequent three-point shooters have sunk the Nuggets all the way to 21st in three-point percentage this season.

Denver needed Jokic’s three-point shot again versus the Clippers. Murray, who’s battling a sore lower back went 1 of 3 from beyond the arc in the Nuggets’ win. Harris, who’s playing through tightness in his groin, converted on two of his five attempts but Barton went just 1 of 4 from distance. Jokic picked up the slack hitting on three of his four three-point tries. Strong three-point shooting (Denver shot 44% from three-point range as a team), defense, and rebounding also helped the Nuggets improve their record to 27-12 on the season. Denver is now 18-2 when out-rebounding its opponent.

Kawhi Leonard led the Clippers with 30 points but Denver and mainly Jerami Grant, who filled in at power forward again for Paul Millsap (left knee contusion) who missed a third-straight game, did a good enough job limiting the forward. Jokic finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds, and six assists. Murray added 19 points and Harris tallied 15 points, all of which came in the first half. Rookie Michael Porter Jr. chipped in 13 points on 6 of 8 shooting off the bench and Monte Morris continued his current run of strong play by registering 12 points and six assists.

Jokic was conscious of his struggles from three-point range earlier this season and he’s been working closely with Nuggets player development coach Ognjen Stojakovic in an effort to get his jumper back on track. Jokic said late Sunday night that he’s been focusing on using his legs more in his shot after hitting the front of the iron too many times over the first two months of the season.

“I think when you shoot you need to use your legs a little bit so every ball isn’t short,” he said.

He’s also aware of his rising percentage from beyond the arc.

How aware?

After Sunday’s win Jokic was asked about his 40-plus percent three-point shooting since December and where his confidence level was from beyond the arc. Jokic was quick to interject with an approximation of how lights out he’s been from three-point range as of late.

“Forty five (percent)” he said, cutting off the question halfway through. “I’m joking, I don’t know.”

Close enough. Jokic has been lights out since the beginning of December but even hotter in January. Since Jan. 1 (six games), Jokic is shooting 48.3% from 3.

“If Nikola’s making his 3s he almost becomes unguardable,” Malone said.

Three-pointers don’t just make Jokic unguardable.

They make the Nuggets’ offense unstoppable.

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