Inside the romantic and unpredictable play stunning NBA defenses

WHEN JAMAL MURRAY is asked about playing the two-man game with Nikola Jokic, he replies, “The best part is we don’t really don’t know what is going to happen.”

“And the beauty of that,” Paul Millsap adds, “is if we don’t know, then [the defense] can’t possibly know.”

The pick-and-roll partners are heavy on improvisation, but their attraction to the motion began a world apart.

When Jokic was a young boy in Sombor, Serbia, a reluctant basketball talent who cried when his father dragged him to practice, he knew what he liked.

Tim Duncan was his man. The first time he saw the San Antonio power forward mastering the nuances of the pick-and-roll with teammate Manu Ginobili, the adolescent Jokic was drawn to Duncan’s understated excellence and unselfishness.

“He wasn’t flashy,” Jokic says. “I liked that.”

In Kitchener, Ontario, some 4,550 miles away, Murray was eagerly gobbling up a steady diet of Michael Jordan highlights under the watchful eye of his father Roger. Murray marveled at the symmetry of Jordan and Scottie Pippen, who seemed to innately sense what the other would do next. Many of the clips were from the Bulls’ tussles with the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals, so, Murray recalls, “you couldn’t help but notice Stockton and Malone.”

Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady is careful to pay the proper homage to the Jazz greats. But, he asserts, the game has changed, and the Denver Nuggets’ compelling duo of Jokic and Murray, whose symbiotic innovation has vaulted their team to Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals, has surpassed them.

“I’ve never seen a combination like those two,” McGrady says. “You have a guy like Jamal, who comes off the pick and shoots the way he does, or passes it to a guy with the skill set of Jokic.

“Karl Malone was a great midrange shooter but he didn’t have the skill set that Jokic has. Nikola can knock down the shot, he drives to the basket, he makes these incredible passes. He does so many things out of [the pick-and-roll] that no other big man can do.”

Jokic detects tendencies, both on film and in real time — often in the middle of a tight game — to determine what is the best course of action for him and Murray. It often requires a split-second decision, something Denver’s big man has been preparing for since those early days of tracking Duncan.

“I just wonder what they’re doing,” Jokic says, “and then I do the opposite of that.”

In this new-age NBA world, where double-teams are scarce and switching is the norm, where 3-point shots are rampant and midrange jumpers are decried, the Nuggets have inverted the pick-and-roll by featuring sets in which Murray, the point guard, screens for Jokic, the big man.

“That’s unheard of,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone says. “It speaks to a couple of things: Nikola’s ability to handle and make plays, but also the underrated fact that Jamal Murray is our best screener.

“They’re not going to switch on a 1-5 pick-and-roll, so now you have Nikola coming off and making plays at the top of the floor,” Malone says. “Teams can double-team him in the post, but when he’s got the ball up top, he’s unguardable. Because if you want to put two players on the ball, you’ve got Jamal, who is a pick-and-pop threat who can also drive to the basket. I’ve not seen anything like this in many, many years — if ever.”

HALL OF FAME point guard Isiah Thomas, who excelled in the two-man game with Detroit Pistons teammate Bill Laimbeer, contends there are three requirements to execute an effective pick-and-roll: the point guard must be able to make his own shot, be a great passer, and draw the attention of two players. Thomas checked all those boxes, and, he says, “Jamal does too.”

“So many of these new guys [in the NBA] think the pick is for them,” Thomas says. “The roller is actually the most important player.

“Laimbeer was special because he could catch going to the basket, but also could lead the defense, and change things by popping as opposed to rolling. That stretched the defense and the weakside defender couldn’t get there in time.”

What makes Jokic different from Laimbeer, Thomas says, is that not only can he pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop, but Jokic also does a third thing that Thomas terms “just impossible.”

“He can put it on the floor and make as good a pass as a guard can,” Thomas says. “Most bigs are good passers when stationary. Very few bigs are great passers off the bounce, but Jokic is.”

Like Thomas and Laimbeer, or former Phoenix Suns teammates Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, Murray and Jokic have compiled a litany of reads over time through trial and error. They have experimented with the side pick-and-roll and high pick-and-roll, and have tweaked many of their approaches by altering the angles to keep defenses guessing.

“I couldn’t have set a screen for Laimbeer,” Thomas says. “Stockton couldn’t have set a screen for Karl Malone. But Murray can do that because of the skill set Jokic brings to the table. It’s freaky to say this, but he’s got Magic Johnson and Larry Bird passing ability.”

During the regular season, the Nuggets ran 171 plays with Murray as the screener and Jokic as the ball handler. That combination averaged 1.30 points per direct pick, per ESPN Stats & Information, tied for the best in the NBA.

“Think about what Jokic is doing,” Thomas adds. “He’s dropping passes on a dime with touch to guys who are 6-2, 6-3, and he’s doing it consistently.

“So yes, in this era you would have to say the two of them are the best. But that’s because of Jokic.”

Denver assistant coach David Adelman takes exception to that analysis. He insists Murray’s innate ability to determine the angles of a screen, and to know when to slip or when to pop depending on the opponent, is equally critical.

“Jamal has some unteachable instincts that allow these two guys to improvise,” Adelman says.

The angles are everything, whether it’s running a flat screen, which is when the player starts lower and steps up to the opponent, or when implementing a touch screen. Murray has proven to be particularly effective with the touch screen, leading a player to react the way he wants so he can pop out, slip to the rim or find Jokic for a basket. Jokic, in turn, is astute at creating pockets of space so he can slip out for a 3-pointer, or simply “light up” his opponent with a step-up pick-and-roll.

“Setting a proper screen is so important,” Adelman says. “What Jamal’s screens often do is provide Jokic with a downhill drive. And, once a man of that size gets that close to the rim, with his touch, he’s gained a big advantage without having to work so hard.”

“We can post Jokic all day, but banging with [LaMarcus] Aldridge, banging with [Enes] Kanter, can take its toll,” Adelman says. “When Jamal sets that screen, it allows Nikola to get downhill freely.”

AFTER A PULSATING Game 5 victory over San Antonio in Denver’s grueling opening-round playoff series, coach Mike Malone described the chemistry between Jokic and Murray as “romantic.” Their uncanny chemistry, respect for each other’s skill set and willingness to share the ball was so entrenched that their coach didn’t feel the need to call a single offensive play in the third quarter.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Nuggets backup point guard Monte Morris says. “The connection they have is crazy.

“It looks so smooth and effortless because they’ve been doing it for years. You can’t just start out playing like that. It takes work.”

Indeed, although the two players do not fraternize much off the court, they have spent countless hours watching film together and collaborating on how they can exploit defenses.

Malone has afforded both of them great freedom to create offensively, but that came with a price.

Last season, Denver averaged 15.0 turnovers a game (23rd in the league), but even more damning, finished dead last in the NBA in opponents’ points off turnovers (18.7). The Nuggets were eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the regular season, and Malone’s point of emphasis all summer was to drill home the need to take care of the ball. That meant playing fast but not frenetic, and making the simple play as opposed to the pass with a higher degree of difficulty.

His message resonated; the Nuggets averaged 13.7 turnovers a game this season and gave up 15 points a game on those miscues, ranking sixth overall.

“We make mistakes,” Murray shrugs, “but we learn from them.”

THE DENVER NUGGETS understand they are a work in progress with miles to go defensively, yet a future cemented on a foundation of Jokic and Murray has the league buzzing. Is it too premature to anoint their pick-and-roll prowess on par with that of Stockton and Malone or Nash and Stoudemire?

“I won’t say it’s too soon at all,” Pippen says. “The game is played in a bigger space now. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, everything was played inside the 3-point line. These days, it’s played outside the 3-point line, and Jokic and Murray are maximizing that.

“Jokic is a hybrid center, a guard-center. I haven’t seen big guys bring the ball up floor like that. I haven’t seen big guys come off the pick-and-roll and shoot a 3. I haven’t seen big guys find the open player like he does. He’s special, something new to our game.

“Jamal has that stronger hunger and a good knack for scoring the ball. The fact that he’s playing with a Peyton Manning guy that sees him all the time, and is willing to throw him the ball under all sorts of stress, helps Murray be the player he is. And, Jamal enhances that by moving so well without the basketball.”

Jokic, who eschews platitudes at most every turn, says there’s much work to be done as the evolution of his partnership with Murray continues.

“We are trying to put our game on a higher level to set us apart,” Jokic says.

“But what we’re doing is nothing like we’ve seen before,” Murray says. “Of course, there will always be Stockton and Malone, and Nash and Stoudemire, but what we’re doing is different. Unique.

“Maybe they’ll be talking about Murray and the Joker someday.”

ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this story.

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