Nikola Jokic solved Wolves’ defense by targeting Rudy Gobert in NBA Playoffs

No sequence can be more backbreaking than a series of events where a team not only was forced into making a mistake by their opponents — they started forcing themselves into boneheaded decisions that all but crippled their chances of winning the game.

That’s exactly what happened to the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 4 of their Western Conference Semifinals series against the Denver Nuggets. With 30 seconds left in the second quarter — down by seven points — the Wolves found themselves having to guard Nikola Jokić with their best defender in Rudy Gobert.

You might think that’s not a bad situation to be in — and it isn’t a knock to Gobert at all — but the reason why the Wolves have been trying to avoid him having to defend Jokić one-on-one is that it takes Gobert away from his ideal role on defense: as a roamer and rim protector. When he has to be actively engaged in defending his man, he won’t be in a position to clean up mistakes, get rebounds, and shut off the paint using the threat of his shot blocking.

On the other hand, having Gobert play single coverage against Jokić means the Wolves won’t have to be as aggressive with their doubles, especially those that come from the top (i.e., one pass away). Having someone who can punish those doubles one pass away – say, Michael Porter Jr., for example – further hinders that decision from being made at all.

Still, the defense is forced to show a proper amount of “fear” against the prospect of Jokić scoring against single coverage, no matter who’s defending him. Which is why you still see this alignment despite the confidence in Gobert handling it on his own:

Wolves defense

But it also opens up other avenues of attack, especially on the weak side. Jamal Murray is a blur in the picture above — he’s in the process of cutting down the middle toward the basket, which means that Jaden McDaniels is then forced to cover the cut by helping off of the weak-side wing, occupied by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Of course, being the type of player to notice that kind of occurrence, Jokić makes the read you’d expect him to do — but one that doesn’t fail to inspire appreciation every time it happens:

That was the part where the Nuggets forced the Wolves into a “mistake.” The ones the Wolves forced themselves into came directly after that:

Boneheaded decisions by the Wolves aside, the Nuggets responded the way champions are expected to respond when faced with a great deal of difficulty and adversity thrown their way. They’ve done so by making some micro-adjustments that have had a macro effect on the tenor of this series, which is now up for grabs after the Wolves took the first two games in Denver.

Over the last two games, the Nuggets have made it a point of emphasis to figuratively point their fingers at Gobert, as if to say, “We want him involved in defending our best player at all times.” It’s not a novel strategy by any means. Gobert has been the target of many hunts out on the perimeter and has developed an undeserved reputation for being a headless chicken whenever he’s not in his paint-protecting dominion. He deserves more recognition for being a capable switch-out big on the perimeter, despite it not being his bread-and-butter archetype as a defender.

But as explained earlier in this article, there is a method to the perceived madness in challenging the four-time Defensive Player of the Year in a head-to-head contest. And there’s no better coach to embrace that madness than the mad scientist who is Michael Malone.

You could practically hear the gears turn in Malone’s head as early as Game 3 — a blowout victory by the Nuggets — where there was an increased emphasis in drawing Gobert away from his roamer role and toward a more active role as Jokić’s defender. The simplest way to accomplish this would be to invert one’s way of running an ubiquitous half-court action.

Simply put, the Nuggets had Aaron Gordon — Gobert’s man — set inverted ball screens for Jokić:

In a sense, the micro-adjustments led to an overarching realization that needed to be said after two games of mediocrity: it may be as simple as Jokić needing to play much better and up to his standards for the Nuggets to make this a series once again. That’s pretty much a “duh” thing to say, but it remains the truth for this series, and it will remain the truth for more playoff games down the line.

Being better in Jokić terms can mean being more decisive with his progressions (such as his read to Caldwell-Pope above), seeing where the help comes from and making quicker decisions off of those, and also — perhaps the most crucial one — being more aggressive as a scorer.

The latter is partly what forced the Wolves’ hand in Game 4 in terms of temporarily shelving their tactic of having the four-man (Karl-Anthony Towns or Naz Reid) guard Jokić and having Gobert roam off of Gordon. But there’s also appreciation to be had in the finer details of how Jokić got to his sweet spots — such as the middle of the paint, where he was able to get off his patented soft-touch floaters before Gobert even had a whisper’s chance of affecting them.

The screening actions for Murray (and the screens themselves), for instance, were better — and forced Towns to have to leave Jokić free on the roll by stepping up to the level against Murray coming off:

As well as helping Murray himself get some good scoring looks:

(As a brief aside, take note of who the bring-up ball handler was in the possessions above: Gordon, whose usage in Game 4 saw a drastic shift — from being an off-ball dunker spot roamer to more of a ball-handling initiator who used his newfound role to shift the Wolves’ defense around in a myriad of ways.)

In one-on-one situations against Towns or Reid, Jokić was able to nullify the roaming presence of Gobert. All he did was get to his sweet spot in the paint where Gobert’s ability to help became inconsequential:

The combination of occurrences above virtually forced the Wolves into just having Gobert himself guard Jokić — a challenge the three-time MVP more than welcomed:

When the Wolves eventually ran out of counters to the Nuggets’ counters, they went back to what was familiar and what previously worked — a natural response to being backed against a wall. They shifted Gobert off of Jokić and returned him to his roamer role while “guarding” Gordon, with Towns back as Jokić’s primary defender.

That was when the Nuggets unleashed what was arguably their ultimate counter to the Wolves’ tactic of having Towns stay attached to Jokić on the roll:

They key lies in what Christian Braun does in the possession above. He sets an initial screen on Towns — called a “ram” screen — in order to add a layer of confusion and delay Towns’ involvement in the ball-screen action. Towns is then forced to pay attention to Murray coming off of Jokić’s ball screen — and keeps him from staying attached to Jokić a beat earlier, opening up the short roll for Jokić to dissect a Wolves defense in rotation.

Such is the joy of a high-level playoff series. Watching teams — a championship team in this case — show vulnerability and allowing them to concoct solutions to problems that are seemingly unsolvable. In a game of counterpunch after counterpunch after counterpunch, the haymaker proved to be the problem-solving skills of Nikola Jokić. In true Thanosian fashion, he was inevitable in his Game 4 performance, in which he finally dug down and told everyone else around him that he’ll do it himself.

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