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Nikola Jokić vs. Draymond Green Is a Chess Match For the Ages

Nuggets-Warriors features a battle of two frontcourt geniuses–and it’s fascinating to watch.

Game 1 between the Nuggets and Warriors will be remembered as Jordan Poole’s coming out party, if it’s remembered for anything at all.

In his playoff debut, Golden State’s third-most important player (sincere apologies to Klay Thompson) exploded for 30 points on just 13 shots. He nailed five threes and attacked the basket on speedy drives and cuts, elevating the sport’s most aesthetically pleasing system as it simultaneously propped him up. Denver had no answer for Poole, who, since March 1, averaged 24.7 points and 5.4 assists while making 41.9% of his 9.7 (!) threes per game. In other words, he’s been an All-Star.

But Game 1 also kicked off something even more important: the most complex, highbrow individual matchup in basketball, a confrontation between two brilliant forces of nature who hadn’t competed against each other in 358 days: Nikola Jokić (the best offensive player in the world) vs. Draymond Green (the best defensive player in the world). The chess match between these two helped dictate Saturday night’s outcome, and may even decide the series. It’s significant in ways both subtle and apparent. Strategic scaffolding.

Of course, it takes multiple players to slow Jokić down—he finished with 25 points (on 25 shots), 10 rebounds and six assists in Game 1—just as cohesive teamwork is necessary to punish Green and Golden State’s No. 2 defense. But the awareness these two stars had for each other was palpable throughout the series’ opening 48 minutes, whether Green was battling the reigning MVP in the post, tracking him off screens, or guarding him directly in pick-and-rolls. He also monitored the action from afar, shrinking the floor and attempting to shortcircuit Jokić’s intentions.

It’s that last scenario, with Green as a helper, where these two really tried to stay one step ahead of the other, anticipating physical movements or guessing what the other had on his mind, like two ace detectives that have cleared every case that’s ever come across their desk.

With Jokić drawing Kevon Looney as his initial defender, it didn’t take long for him to indirectly engage with Green. A few minutes into the game, Nuggets guard Monte Morris came out of the corner to curl around Jokić, who was air-traffic-controlling Denver’s offense from the left elbow. As Thompson trailed over the top, Jokić faked the hand off and then sucked Draymond one step into the paint by faking a bounce pass to Morris before, somehow in the same motion, whipping the ball to Jeff Green in the weakside corner for an open three.

It’s not that Green was tricked into taking that step toward the ball. If he didn’t commit, Jokić absolutely would’ve thread the needle for a layup, or taken Looney off the dribble.

As the game went on, nothing was consistent or predictable. When Jokić secured low-post position on Looney, Green sometimes doubled the ball or stunted to force a pass, and sometimes he let his teammate handle it one-on-one.

(About a minute after the play seen above, Green stood on the left block and watched Jokić go to work for a bucket.)

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Regardless of who was on Jokić, the Warriors’ fundamental objective was to speed the game up with a high pickup point. Looney regularly met Jokić 35 feet from the basket, and when Golden State went small, Green spent a few plays shadowing him in Denver’s own backcourt. It forced them to go faster than they normally prefer (the Nuggets ranked 26th in “time to shot” this season, per Inpredictable).

On plays where Jokić was able to meander past the pressure and kick it to a teammate who scored, you had the sense watching it live that the Warriors were successfully executing a game plan that would otherwise be self-destructive without someone as savvy as Green being able to initially cover two players at the same time, as he does with Jokić and a diving Aaron Gordon on the play below.

What makes Jokić such a singular cover is how the Nuggets move him around the floor before he touches the ball—wedge and flex screens turn him into a moving target and force opposing centers to do more work than they’d like.

Fully understanding that the playoffs are a game of inches and that perhaps nobody optimizes every extra bit of space better than Jokić, Green’s help on these plays was steady. But when the help was a bit too aggressive, Jokić wouldn’t hesitate to involve his teammates and let them take advantage of all the attention defenders gave him.

On one play, Jokić came off a wide pindown set on Green, but missed the open three. In others, he tried fooling the defense by waving a teammate over and then running off a down screen instead. These games within the game didn’t always yield points, but more often than not they eventually created decent looks for an offense that needs different wrinkles to catch Golden State off balance:

Of course, chasing Jokić through a thicket of screens isn’t something Green can’t handle. His mixture of tepid closeouts and aggressive contests turned Jokić into a jump shooter, especially in pick-and-pop situations, where Green would drop to stifle the ball-handler and then recover back to Jokić on the pass back. And when the Warriors were forced to switch Andre Iguodala or Thompson onto Jokić, those matchups were less devastating with Green unambiguously behind the play, preventing any drive.

Every possession is its own story when these two geniuses are on the court. As the series unfolds, how they adjust to each other from play to play, quarter to quarter and game to game is one of the first round’s most fascinating subplots.

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