“Their chemistry is almost romantic,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after an 18-point rout of the Spurs in Game 5 on Tuesday. “They care about each other, they love each other. They play for each other. That’s when we’re at our best.”
Anyone at all familiar with Denver’s season will immediately identify the “they” in that sentence: Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, two halves of the NBA’s most delightful two-man game.
Each player had an great individual game by counting stats—Jokic had 16 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists; Murray added 23, four, and seven—but the real story is how they fuel one another. Malone’s spot-on. Denver never looks more formidable than when this pair is humming on the offensive end. They’d struggled to find that harmony through the first four games of the series, but it finally came together on Tuesday.
Murray was the beneficiary of half of Jokic’s dimes in the game, with this needle-thread perhaps the sweetest of the bunch.
Due to the big brioche’s versatility, their pick-and-roll can run both ways. Here the center sets the pick and polishes off the play with the relatively rare Jokic throwdown:
And here the point guard sets the pick, pops out, and hits his big as he lumbers to the rim.
There are so many different ways these two can get it going—pick-and-roll, give-and-go, dribble handoff, all the lumpy odd Jokic stuff that defies easy categorization—that it becomes very difficult for the defense, let alone the viewer, to anticipate the action on any given possession.
Credit the Spurs, though, for stunting their chemistry for a while. Through the first four games, the Nuggets broke dead-even in their minutes with Murray and Jokic on the floor together. At that point, one pervasive fear among enthusiasts of the Nuggets’ weirdo offense appeared to be coming true: maybe this whole system was just a little too gimmicky to survive the ratcheted-up intensity of Playoff Basketball.
Jokic and Murray helped put some of those worries aside in Game 5; the tandem was +27. Looked at differently: The Murray-Jokic pair had a net rating of 1.4 through the first four games, falling well short of their season net rating of 6.7. After Game 5, they’re at 11.4 for the series. Pretty good game!
Sometimes I find myself idly wondering what Jamal Murray might look like on a more conventional (i.e. Jokic-less roster), shouldering more of the ball-handling duties, creating more looks from scratch as he is clearly capable of doing, and becoming one of the league’s new self-sufficient point guard freaks. But that’s so dumb! That these two complementary players found each other in this cold, indifferent universe is a gift from the hoop gods. Jokic is the visionary who can pass through or over any defensive configuration; Murray is the cagey mover with the craft to finish at the rim and the range to hit from distance. It’s an elegant offensive engine, and it’s still so early in its development. Who knows what it’ll look like in its prime?
“We’re both really passionate about basketball. So when we have some good plays or whatever, we just want to express our feelings,” Jokic said after the win. Aww. “It’s really nothing he can’t do .... other than jump,” Murray said after the game. Consider my heart warmed—and, if they keep this up, consider the Spurs cooked.