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The Action That Turned the Nuggets Into a Juggernaut

The NBA’s best two-man game has carried Denver to the Finals, but it didn’t always look like Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic were destined for greatness. Now they could go down as one of the best pick-and-roll combos in NBA history.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The very first pick-and-roll Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic ran in an NBA game was on October 29, 2016. It came early in the fourth quarter of a two-point loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. The play unfurled at one speed, on Portland’s terms, with Jokic bricking a midrange jumper over the rim:

Their next attempt, two days later, wasn’t any better. Or the one after that. Or the next 10 tries after that. How about the 15th? Guess again. More than two weeks after that initial foray into a new on-court relationship, with a lowlight reel of rushed shots and miscalculations in between, the first Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll that directly resulted in a made basket didn’t come until their 16th try, in a win more than two weeks later over the Suns:

At the beginning, they were sped up. Most of the ingredients that are baked into what is now basketball’s most copacetic collaboration—trust, patience, and a reciprocal fluency that authorizes countless options on any given play—did not exist.

From the ground floor, Chris Finch had a courtside view of their evolution. The Timberwolves head coach spent the 2016-17 season as a Nuggets assistant. It was Murray’s first year in the league and Jokic’s second. Back then, Denver’s two foundational young talents didn’t work together like they do now—Murray was the backup shooting guard—but the seeds of something singular were planted in different ways, particularly once the Nuggets underlined Jokic’s vision by utilizing him at the top of the floor.

“I think the thing that we saw earliest at that point in time, the pick-and-roll game was less of an emphasis or even a thing with those guys,” Finch told The Ringer. “[Jamal] would bring the ball up, he’d get off of it, and he would cut off of Nikola. He didn’t always want the ball back just to run pick-and-rolls. So he would cut. He would curl his cuts, he would backdoor.”

The reps that have helped them build chemistry were instilled elsewhere.

“We started to figure out where we like the ball, when we liked the ball, when I’m going to pass, when he’s going to pass, when he’s driving, when to relocate, where to relocate,” Murray said.

Six seasons later, coming off a historic Game 3 victory in which both stars finished with their own 30-point triple-double, the Murray-Jokic connection is a driving force behind Denver’s 2-1 series lead over the Heat in the NBA Finals. Their pick-and-roll is already on the short list of the most effective, confident, and resourceful combinations in NBA history. As the stakes rise, so does their volume. In Game 3, they ventured way above their average, running 31 pick-and-rolls, which is the third most they’ve ever run in the playoffs. With a Finals lead on the line, this is the action that wrestled the series back in Denver’s favor. None of it was a coincidence.

Since 2019, Murray and Jokic have linked up for 1,048 postseason pick-and-rolls, which is a league high. That includes two years in which Murray didn’t play after suffering a torn ACL. Now, just looking at their three playoff runs together (in 2019, 2020, and 2023), Murray and Jokic have run more pick-and-rolls than Steph Curry and Draymond Green, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and LeBron James and Anthony Davis combined.

In these playoffs, the Nuggets stars have run 98 more pick-and-rolls than the next-highest duo; their 19.7 per-game average is also a postseason best. In those plays, they’re manufacturing a comical 1.26 points per possession. And they’re assertive, too. A whopping 80.8 percent of their pick-and-rolls directly lead to a shot or a pass that leads to a shot. That’s the highest mark in this postseason for any pick-and-roll combination that averaged at least 10 actions per game.

“They both make the right play all the time, and that sounds like an easy thing to do, but it’s not,” Finch said. “[Murray] comes off, he’ll easily find Nikola for whatever read it is, whether it’s a pop, or a pocket pass, or the occasional roll. And then oftentimes, at that point in time the pick-and-roll is either dead, or they kick it out, and something else happens. But what they do is they’ll pass and chase and play pick-and-roll again.”

It’s a sequence that makes defenders feel like they’re trying to catch raindrops with a pair of drumsticks. Imagine having to stop this:

For an offense that’s seemingly random and employs off-ball screens, timely cuts, and whirling movement in space, Murray-Jokic pick-and-rolls are the closest thing Denver has to a consistent through line. These efforts are the intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and outro of Denver’s melody. And the deeper into a game the Nuggets go, the more they tend to lean on their two best players working together.

“That’s a lot of their fourth-quarter offense. It’s a lot of what they go through,” Heat center Cody Zeller said. “There’s no perfect way to guard it. There’s no perfect matchup.” They don’t capitulate. Ever. Stop their initial screen and Jokic will re-screen and send Murray the opposite way:

“They give you multiple doses, so you have to always be up on both of them, because they can both score and shoot from all ranges,” Finch said. “And it doesn’t matter, like, you can’t try to be directional and send Jamal one way or another because if you send him away from the pick-and-roll then now Nikola just pops into space and it’s one of those things, like, OK, we’re trying to do a good job on Jamal here but we’re actually forcing the ball into their best player’s hands. How smart is that?”

Jokic and Murray are basketball soulmates, born to share the floor. One is a lottery pick by way of Kitchener, Ontario, and the University of Kentucky. The other was drafted 41st overall out of Sombor, Serbia. The sum is so much greater than the parts. It’s a rare bedrock, in a league that’s full of star duos who seldom uplift each other so frequently in a mutually beneficial arrangement.

“They both can do it on their own, but they also both really complement each other,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s hard to find in this league, when your two best players just absolutely complement each other.”

Separated, they’re still awesome. Jokic won league MVP last year playing zero seconds with Murray. But together they are special. Peanut butter and jelly. Ocean and beach. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. The Neptunes and Pusha T. A warm room and a gorgeous view. This is the most accentuating, balanced, intellectually accessible partnership in basketball.

“I’d say it’s a trust and a feel, that’s the best way for me to put it,” Murray said after Game 3. “It’s not really x’s and o’s. It’s just reading the game and trusting that the other is going to make the right play.

“It’s free flowing. If something is there, we go. If it’s not, we don’t force it. He makes tough shots look easy, and he’s been doing it for a very long time. I think the consistency doesn’t get talked about enough.”

Last week, Kyle Lowry, a 17-year veteran, was asked if he’s ever seen chemistry like what Murray and Jokic have. “I’m pretty old in this game right now,” he said. “I played Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Honestly, that’s a great combination that I got the opportunity to play against. Jamal and Jokic, they’re deadly because they both can score, pass the ball. They’re big targets, and they have a great feel for each other.”

The possibilities they invent are almost endless. Sometimes their pick-and-roll is a designed decoy for something else, like when Jokic rolls into a pindown for Michael Porter Jr.:

This brings us to a critical question the rest of the NBA needs to figure out as soon as it possibly can: How do you slow this action down? The set below is something the Heat caught on film and immediately sniffed out in Game 1. Watch Gabe Vincent on this play. First, he shoots the gap to take away Porter’s catch, then he switches out onto Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as MPJ dives through the paint, forcing Max Strus to pick him up:

But Denver has too many counters to ever really sweat. “You have two guys that can score 50 in a playoff game. One guy is a triple-double machine that loves to get guys involved,” Spoelstra said. “You go down the list of myriad of things you can do defensively, you have to check off some things that you don’t really want to do because of both their ability to score and Jokic’s ability to create something off-script.”

Here’s Christian Braun setting a pick for Jokic before Jokic sets the pick for Murray. Miami blitzes the ball, Jimmy Butler slides up to guard Jokic, and Murray finds Braun sliding toward the rim for an and-1:

For any defense, there’s no bulletproof solution. “Whatever you do, you just can’t do it all the time,” Spoelstra said. “There’s no absolutes when you get to this level.”

Opponents can try a simple drop coverage, where Jokic’s defender sags back, lets help defenders stay home on Denver’s bevy of shooters, and guards the action two-on-two. But good luck trying to corral two of the most skilled, congruent players at their respective positions when they have room to operate. Both have been lethal in the midrange, with a pull-up jumper or push shot out of a short roll.

“Jamal and Nikola to me has been a potent two-man game for many, many years now,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “They know how to communicate with each other without even speaking, just reading and playing off of each other and making the right reads. I think the key to that two-man game is making sure the other three players are spaced correctly so they can operate in space, and no matter how you guard that, there’s a counter to it.”

Some defenses have had a little more success being aggressive. Jokic’s man can be higher up on the floor, or even commit to blitzing Murray. That allows Jokic to fill unoccupied space around the free throw line, which forces a rotation and opens daylight for a lob or an open 3-pointer:

But, relatively speaking, it also limits how potent Murray can be. When Jokic’s man is up to touch, Denver generates only 0.99 points per direct play and 1.11 points per possession. (It’s just barely the most frequent tactic used: 5.5 picks per game versus 5.2 in a drop.) When Murray gets blitzed, the Nuggets have scrounged only 0.67 points per direct play and 1.06 points per possession. That’s bad.

Teams can switch, of course—a strategy the Heat have tried several times in the Finals (with catastrophic results—i.e., 1.75 points per chance). Throwing a smaller defender on Jokic or a big on Murray is almost never a good idea, regardless of how versatile the individuals involved might be. It puts the defense on its heels, forcing help from unwanted areas of the floor and letting Denver dictate the terms. And if there’s no double-team? Well, it’s going to be a long night.

And still, the defense can’t be blamed for guarding them like this. There’s simultaneously no wrong or right answer. “You’ve got to guard both of them,” Butler said. “[A] majority of the time with two people.” Before Game 2, I asked Adebayo what Miami wanted to limit or take away when Jokic sets a screen for Murray. “Open shots. Open looks,” Adebayo said. “Biggest thing for us is making both of them work in not as much space and really making them take difficult shots.”

All of that’s easier said than done, especially when you zoom out and realize the Nuggets make you scout so many other offensive actions in addition to the pick-and-roll. Take one away and they’ll just lean on the other.

“They’re not dumb enough to just leave Jokic down there on the block and let you roam and swarm him,” Finch says. “He just moves to the top of the floor, and you can’t bring your five to the middle of the floor and double him there. I mean, that’s suicide.

“So they just play this yo-yo game. And then when all else fails, like, oh by the way, Nikola will back you down and make a 8-footer over you. And if he misses it, he pushes you out of the way and gets his own rebound. So like, it’s really [laughs] … at times you feel helpless.”

The Nuggets are two wins away from raising their first championship banner; so many steps have been taken to get where they are. So many difficult and fortuitous personnel decisions, combined with patience and perseverance. But the core of it all rests on Jokic and Murray’s shoulders. And folded inside that partnership is a pick-and-roll that may, one day, be seen as the greatest iteration of the classic play basketball has ever seen.

What’s scary? As unstoppable as it can be today, there’s no reason why these two, smack-dab in the middle of their primes, can’t dance at an even more harmonious frequency in the future. If they win it all, how to slow Jokic and Murray down will be the no. 1 question around the NBA. And it’s unclear when, or if, an answer can ever present itself.

“They have it on speed-dial right now,” Finch said. “And it’s fun to watch.”

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