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Nikola Jokić Is A Tortoise, And He’s Beating All Of The Hares

Earlier this month, before the Nuggets pulled off another improbable series comeback, I asked 7-footer Nikola Jokić about the patient, glacially paced style he uses on offense. In a hyper-athletic NBA, in which the speed limit is 70, the Denver star operates at … something much, much less.

“I’m patient because I cannot really run fast, and that’s my only option,” he said, with a deadpan.

No one will mistake Jokić for Usain Bolt anytime soon, but the reality is that he’s often at his best, and brings opposing defenders to their knees most often, while playing at his slowest.

There’s no getting around the simple truth that the Joker is slow, to put it kindly. Among NBA players who logged at least 1,500 minutes in the regular season, Jokić spent the least time running fast, per Second Spectrum data, triggering that distinction just 2.91 percent of the time.1 It’s remarkable that Denver, a team that has historically thrived off its ability to play with pace and use altitude for an increased home-court advantage, has been such an ideal fit for a relative tortoise.

But the playoffs have only reinforced that notion. Over Jokić’s playoff career the past two seasons, he’s logged a blistering effective field-goal percentage of 65.5 — shooting 33-of-55, including 6-of-7 from deep — when possessing the ball for more than six seconds before a shot, per NBA Advanced Stats. That’s a sizable step up from when Jokić has it for from two to six seconds (50.8), or when he keeps it for less than two seconds before letting a shot fly (58.9).

Jokić has been a nightmare for the Lakers throughout the Western Conference finals, hitting so many outrageous shuffle jumpers that he might as well be playing H.O.R.S.E.

What often stands out most about Jokić, though, is how little wasted movement there is within his offensive plays. While most of the NBA’s first and second options will usually dribble upon getting the ball, Jokić usually pauses to survey the floor first. Many times, he won’t dribble at all.

This season, Jokić threw more than 21 percent of his passes after having the ball for more than a second, without dribbling it first, according to an analysis run by Matt Scott of STATS SportVU. To put that into greater context, the average player threw just 2.5 percent of his passes that way.

But Jokić, whose place among the all-time great passing big men has been discussed at length this postseason, isn’t the average NBA player. He’s someone who can grab a rebound, flick a water-polo style pass the length of the floor and hit a teammate in stride. He’s a bit like Tom Brady, in that he’s happy to stay in the pocket without feeling overly rushed or pressured. And when defenses try to apply more pressure to Jokić by sending double-teams, he more often than not makes the correct read and finds the open teammate in the corner.

“When I’m playing offense, I just look for defensive mistakes,” Jokić told me. “Are they going to make a mistake, or what are they going to do? Playing a bit slower, because the game is so fast, kind of gives my teammates a chance to go for a back cut, or a lob. They’re going to be open. So I’m playing in my comfort zone, if that makes any sense.”

The Clippers found this out the hard way, sending ill-advised doubles at him one period, while trapping Jamal Murray — and giving Jokić the sort of 4-on-3 looks that Draymond Green and the Warriors feasted on for years — the next quarter. Neither strategy worked for Los Angeles, partly because Jokić is far too advanced a passer to give him a steady diet of power-play scenarios.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone credited his players for learning how to play off of Jokić better, by moving without the ball. (They ranked No. 2 in efficiency on cuts to the basket this season and tied for No. 1 last season.) But guard Monte Morris said Jokić’s inverted feel for the game is special, in that defenses know what he’s trying to do but have no real way of stopping him from doing it.

“Once we pass the ball to him, we usually just try to cut. And if you can get a step on my man, about 90 percent of the time, he’ll get the ball to you where you can finish,” Morris said.

Jokić may often take a few ticks to get off a shot or set up a Nuggets teammate. But as we’ve seen for a few years now, and as he’s shown all postseason, he usually makes it worth the wait.

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  1. Glenn Robinson III spent the most time running fast this season, at 9.48 percent.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.