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Nikola Jokic And Aaron Gordon Are In Space

Nikola Jokic #15 high fives Aaron Gordon #50 of the Denver Nuggets after the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on February 8, 2024 NBAE at Crypto.Com Arena in Los Angeles, California.
Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

The coolest play in the NBA goes like this: Nikola Jokic sets a high screen for Jamal Murray, initiating what has become the league's deadliest two-man game. If things are moving quickly, Murray will drop a pocket-pass to Jokic on the roll, who will then be headed toward the rim and a rotating defense. If the pair is feeling a bit more methodical, Jokic will pin his defender to the free-throw line, get an entry pass from Murray, and then start backing down. In either scenario, it's when Jokic reaches the rim that the fun stuff happens: In a flash, the Jokic-Murray two-man game becomes the Jokic-Murray-Aaron Gordon three-man game, and Gordon is dunking home a point-blank lob from Jokic.

Jokic is not the first big man to make plays out of a collapsing defense, and Gordon did not invent standing in the dunker spot and collecting all the easy points that can be found there. What sets this interaction apart from the usual high-low stuff is a sense of brinksmanship. Jokic and Gordon have spent the last few seasons developing a chemistry around the rim, and this season it has blossomed into something like telepathy. Jokic will start one of his bruising journeys to the hoop knowing from the start that he wants it to end with the ball in Gordon's hands, but he will keep dribbling and bumping and pivoting until it seems like he's gone too far, collapsed too much space, waited too long to do anything but put up a heavily contested shot. It's only in that moment, the last one available to him, that he finds Gordon.

This all works for a few reasons. It works because of Jokic's spatial awareness and processing speed. He can chip his way down the lane via several dizzying spin moves and still know exactly where the 2-3 defenders collapsing on him will be in relation to Gordon and the rim, even as the distance between all of those people and objects shrinks. He can make a final move and clear some space for a shot, only to decide in the nanosecond before the ball leaves his hand that, actually, this one is going to be a pass on the side of the rim. It works because Gordon is fearless. He knows that the more bodies and arms he brings with him into the lane, the bigger his advantage, and so he rushes in there and willingly clogs the lane, knowing that Jokic will find the creases and passing windows that nobody else can anticipate. It works because Gordon never fumbles the ball when it comes to him and can dunk any lob from any angle.

It was all working on Thursday night, when the Nuggets hosted the Boston Celtics and beat them 115-109. Down the stretch, it was Jokic and Gordon making all the plays. With 4:43 left in the game, Jokic slipped a point-blank pass between Jayson Tatum and Kristaps Porzingis to set Gordon up for a dunk that pushed the Nuggets' lead to 11:

A few possessions later, with Denver's lead down to five, Gordon flew in from his spot along the baseline to bang home a put-back off a Jokic miss:

And here is the bucket that put the game to bed:

You can watch that last one a dozen times, from multiple angles, and still not really be sure if Gordon got his hands on a pass or a miss. (When asked about it after the game, Jokic insisted it was a pass: "Sometimes I don't even need to look, I just throw it, I know he's going to be there.") The ambiguity just speaks to how in-tune Jokic and Gordon are with each other. I've watched every single Nuggets game this season, and I still find myself occasionally caught off guard by a Jokic-to-Gordon lob that I didn't see coming. Those moments leave me with the impression that I'm not watching two guys run a play as much as I am watching two guys who have found a new way to communicate with each other, and are using that method to manipulate the space around them in perfect harmony. Gordon and Jokic step into all the chaos and thrashing that roils in the space under an NBA rim, and without even pausing to think they find a way to glide, together, over and through all that mess. If it's hard to understand exactly how they do it, well, that's why it works so well.

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