Denver Nuggets, NBA

Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic’s chemistry took another step in the playoffs

Before bowing out to the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic continued to develop their already devastating combination. Jokic was superb and while Murray’s bouts of inconsistent shooting were tied to Denver’s losses, the way he played in their wins was a teaser of what this pair could do in the playoffs in the future.

In the playoffs, stars win games, and Murray, 22, and Jokic, 24, fueled Denver’s offense. Mike Malone realized as much, benching the ball-dominant Will Barton in favor of 3-and-D prototype, Torrey Craig.

Tracing that change statistically, Jokic and Murray played with each other roughly 12 percentage points more in the first round and 17 percentage points more in the semifinals (77.3% to 84% and 94.5%, respectively). Murray’s net rating with Jokic on the floor increased with every game — from plus-5.4 points in the regular season, to plus-11 in the first round, and, finally, a whopping plus-21.6. It was a two-way street: Jokic’ net rating with Murray increased from 9.9 in the regular season to 14.2 in the playoffs. Factoring in assists and points, the duo accounted for 51.9 percent of Denver’s points, compared to 45.5 percent in the regular season.

Below are two maps courtesy Andrew Patton of SB Nation’s Liberty Ballers and Nylon Calculus, both of which further illustrate the symbiosis of Murray and Jokic.

First, the left-side displays the percentage of Jamal Murray’s made field goals that come off an assist with Jokic on the floor. On the right is the percentage of Murray’s made field goals that come off an assist without Jokic on the floor. On the bottom is a color-specific key.

With Jokic on the floor, Murray gets better shots, and as a result, hits them at a higher clip. Murray’s field goal percentage was 44.7 with Jokic on the floor and 40.6 without Jokic. Those numbers widened in the playoffs, to 45.2 percent with and 29.4 percent without.

While the first map detailed how Murray needed Jokic to score, the map below shows where. Further, the map shows the relative frequency (or relative risk) of an assist being from Jokic as opposed to another player. A color representing 2.0, for example, means on that area on the floor, Murray is two times as likely to have scored on an assist from Jokic as opposed to an assist from another teammate (with Jokic on the floor).

Murray is empowered to finish at the rim when sharing the floor with Jokic. Those close-to-the-rim opportunities — more often than not — arise from give-and-go situations. Thanks to Jokic’ vision, Murray shot 9-of-13 on 16 cuts in the playoffs. Jokic finds Murray with majestic, mathematically-impossible passes:

In Denver’s read-and-react offense — the methodical, half-court machine — set-plays melt into random pick-and-rolls, screen-the-screeners, handoffs. Jokic and Murray thrive because they are master improvisers.

Mike Malone turns to them for offense for good reason, too. The duo force defenses into difficult pick-your-poison situations: defend Murray’s mid-range pull-up shot (84th percentile in the regular season) or Jokic on the roll. While his handles can be loose, Murray does a solid job applying pressure to the defenses. He employs deceptive footwork and off-beat rhythm to either whip one-handed passes to Jokic on the roll or dance all the way to the cup:

The map below shows how Jokic depends on Murray’s skills, as well. Specifically, it shows the relative frequency of an assist being from Murray as opposed to another player. If the color corresponds to a 2.0, for example, at that area on the floor, Jokic is two times as likely to have scored on an assist from Murray as opposed to an assist from another teammate (with both on the floor).

Murray is likely to find Jokic in the floater zone, above the break and for a right-wing 3-pointer. In pick-and-rolls, the Murray-Jokic combination is unstoppable because Jokic is a threat from said locations. Leave him alone on the perimeter and concede a triple. Get in his airspace and suffer from his contrasting, equally dominant style: Jokic wiggles around defenders like a guard or powers through them like Yao Ming. Primarily defended by Jakob Poeltl and Enes Kanter in the first two rounds, the Serbian center feasted. In the below clips, he finishes with a neat floater because he ”can’t dunk.”

The mirror image of the standard pick-and-roll, however, is what differentiates them from other combinations (see: Harris-Jokic). Jokic has recorded the most playoff possessions as ball-handler in pick-and-rolls for centers, while Murray is third in roll-man for guards, They temporarily swap roles: Murray is willing to put his body on the line, while Jokic uses his handle and agility to navigate through traffic.

“That’s unheard of,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan about the success of the inverted pick-and-roll. “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.”

Operating on the same wavelength, Murray and Jokic make the extraordinary, possible. Note how Murray opts to screen Aminu after the latter wiggled through the first flex-screen, but ditches his plan once he spots the double-team coming for Jokic. And Jokic turns his head once he sees Aminu coming, dishing to Murray:

Or if Jokic’ defender slides through Murray’s screen — Aldridge does so here — Murray loops back around off the “screen-the-screener.” Jokic feeds him the ball, then treats the play like a pick-and-roll, rolling into open space:

A nail-biting Game 7 loss shouldn’t obscure the point: the Denver Nuggets’ future is bright. They have a promising young core — Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, Monte Morris, and, yes, Michael Porter Jr. — yet the continued dominance of the Murray and Jokic duo will ultimately determine how wide their championship window opens.

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