The Joker

With a lot on the line, Kevin McHale misses the point about Nikola Jokic

By Henry Abbott

By the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Game 7 in Denver, the Nuggets hadn’t won a playoff series in a decade. They might have had home-court advantage, an 11-point lead, and more talent. But the Spurs had an infinite advantage in mystique borne of past playoff success. Of course they were going to come back, everybody thought when, with 52.2 seconds left, guard Bryn Forbes dunked hard, bringing San Antonio within two, 88-86.

As it happens, the only bucket either team scored after that was by Jamal Murray for the Nuggets, who won the series and will host the Blazers in Game 1 of the second-round tonight (10:30  ET, TNT). Ding dong, the witchcraft is dead.

But there is still something for the Nuggets, a second-seeded team that hovered near the top of the West standings all season, to answer: Why was the first round so hard? The best player in the series, Nikola Jokic, is a Nugget. Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray, also Nuggets, were rivals for second-best. Underdogs who overachieve tend to make tons of 3s, or luck into some high-volume scorer going bananas. Neither of those things happened for the Spurs. By the time Forbes dunked, how had one of the NBA’s best teams given up nine points in 11 minutes to a middling team that was not exactly rolling?

Go back—which I did three times Sunday morning—and watch Jokic, and only Jokic, at both ends of the court for the fourth quarter. It explains a ton.

Battle cry
“HEY! 12 MINUTES, 12 MINUTES!” Nuggets coach Mike Malone is screaming, directing his troops into the battle of the fourth quarter. The entire arena is, excitingly, pitch black as Malone jerks a thumb at the court. “LEAVE IT ALL OUT THERE!! LEAVE IT ALL OUT THERE!!” It sounds like they are about to storm a beach.

Although he faded as the season wore on, the 7-foot Jokic spent much of the season in the MVP conversation. For most of basketball history, players had to be able to dribble, pass, shoot, and see the floor … or be enormous. Jokic is, amazingly, both. But he doesn’t exactly have a gym physique. At some point in the playoffs, someone posted Jokic’s passport photo, where he looked just like the guy Lee Jenkins had described in Sports Illustrated years earlier:

He was overweight—“Obese,” clarifies one of his strength coaches—chugging three liters of Coca-Cola every day and chowing on fatty cheese pies called bureks for breakfast. When he signed his first contract with Mega Leks in New Belgrade, he stood almost 7’0” and weighed nearly 300 pounds, but he could not do a single pushup.

Although he has slimmed and toned, Jokic still often looks gassed—a man who craves oxygen on the team that plays a mile above sea level. But in deference to this game’s Dunkirky moment, Malone is doing something he almost never does: skipping Jokic’s normal rest. Playing the whole fourth quarter is bolder than you might think. Even in the crucible of the playoffs, nimble stars like Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, and James Harden typically sit for four of the 12 minutes.

The game’s on TNT, the color commentator is Kevin McHale. The first thing he says in the fourth quarter is “I love it!” Sometimes when players sit out entire games because of the season’s grinding exhaustion, the reason listed on the box score is “load management.” It’s a term McHale, a former player, executive, and coach, evidently does not like. He drags it up here, somewhat out of place. “LOAD MANAGEMENT? You’ve got all summer if you don’t win. Go out there. That big horse needs to be on that court for Denver.”

Theory: Every single thing Kevin McHale says as a commentator fits the theme of, “things should be more like they were for Kevin McHale when he played.” Human vulnerability is canceled. Everyone should rub dirt on everything. Everything is not a foul, not an injury, not an innovation. Every ball should be shot very close to the rim. All the important learnings of the sport stopped when McHale stopped playing, at a time before 3-pointers, advanced analytics, and strategic rest.

Just as McHale makes his point, the “Big Horse” misses his second straight shot. It is recorded as a “driving floating jump shot” which is play-by-play code for “weak sauce.” Seconds later, Jokic stands with his arms up, hoping a rebound will land in his hands. With the magic of a tiny jump, the shorter LaMarcus Aldridge snags it instead, which leads to a Spurs 3-pointer. Then Jokic misses some more, doesn’t contest some Aldridge shots, doesn’t compete for some rebounds that the Spurs gobble up. With nine minutes left, Jokic scarcely makes it on camera as other Nuggets play offense against Jokic’s man, Aldridge.

McHale’s belief in the game as he played it, posting up, is unwavering: “Right now, Brian, I go into that low post, to Aldridge,” he says, as Popovich’s team does what every modern team does: runs a pick-and-roll to get a clean look at a 3, which rims out for Marco Belinelli.

It gets worse. With 8:27 left, Jokic waves a sad hand at an offensive board sailing well within range over his head—if only he could jump. The much-smaller Forbes gets it instead and leads break the other way. The Spurs make a layup before Jokic enters the frame.

With 7:44 left, Jokic’s teammate Monte Morris gets a steal. For five, six, seven seconds—NBA eternity—Denver plays four-on-five. Where is Jokic? With 16 on the shot clock, he rumbles in. The play that develops is a McHale dream: Jokic catches a pass and barrels into Aldridge at the rim before lofting a shot that lacks all loft. Another miss.

Whatever the word “Jokic” normally means, this isn’t it. He can’t do much, and Denver’s offense has stalled. Their only points in the quarter have come from weird plays you couldn’t run again, by Morris, Malik Beasley, and Will Barton. You only have to look at Jokic’s winced face and lumbering shuffle to know that he is unlikely to improve. On the Denver bench, Coach Malone must know he has made a terrible mistake.

They sense it on the Spurs bench, too. Most of the year Jokic has been someone to double-team when he has the ball, and to avoid when you do. The Spurs do the opposite. With 6:54 left, both Spurs defenders leave Jokic in the pick-and-roll, resulting in Jokic’s only bucket of the quarter, entirely undefended from five feet. As it happens, that’s the moment TNT airs Malone, on tape, screaming to leave it all on the floor, not knowing Jokic already had.

The teams come out of a timeout. On the very next play, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has Aldridge drive right at Jokic. Jokic can only do the beat-man’s defense: reach out a big paw and swipe at the ball as it zips away. He’s lucky not to be called for a foul as Aldridge scores easily. DeRozan drives at Jokic the next time down and draws a foul. Twenty seconds after that, another easy rebound sails over Jokic’s head. McHale is mystified when Jokic simply grabs the speedy Forbes, It’s an obvious foul which at least cancels the need to run.

The Spurs are figuring out how to score. With 5:14 left they pull within six when Rudy Gay bets, correctly, that Jokic won’t jump to contest his shot. At 4:54, Aldridge goes at Jokic and ends up with a point-blank layup.

In the NBA, defenders can’t hang out in the lane without guarding anybody for more than three seconds, and yet with 4:20 left Jokic—catching his breath in front of the rim—dares the referees to call anything by blatantly guarding no one for seven whole seconds. It’s a way to stand still, but also, if you’re huge, a form of cheating to discourage layups. But the Spurs get one anyway: DeRozan assaults with vigor; Jokic can’t muster a challenge. With 4:13 left, the Spurs are within four. Jokic then misses over Aldridge, doesn’t jump to contest a drive, then can’t cross the lane to grab the rebound.

Jokic’s teammates also recognize his depleted state. With 3:18 left Jokic could not have been more open at the 3-point line, but Murray shoots over a double-team all the same, and hits. At 2:44, a flash of brilliant Jokic, maybe his only highlight of the quarter: a zipped pass to a cutting Torrey Craig for an easy bucket. “The Joker putting on a clinic!” screams TNT’s Brian Anderson. “Boy I tell you what,” echoes McHale, “the big fella is one assist away from a triple double and just playing fantastic.”

McHale’s prescription for the Spurs is the same as his prescription for every team. “Now if you’re San Antonio,” he says, “get something going to the hoop.” The Spurs immediately do the exact opposite. Forbes drills a 3 that almost saves the Spurs season by cutting the lead to five.

With two minutes left, Jokic passes up an open 3, dribbles into Aldridge, and gets off a messy shot that comes right back to him, but he’s too tired to grab it. His much better-rested teammate Millsap snags it instead. “How about Paul Millsap!” exclaims McHale. “He just wants it more!” The implication is that he wanted it more than the Spurs, but it’s Jokic who was right there.

With 1:34 left, Jokic misses again, this time on a wide-open 3. All his misses are short, a sign of fatigue. Anderson mentions Jokic has only played the whole fourth quarter twice all season. DeRozan drives at Jokic again, draws Jokic’s fifth foul on a weird play where DeRozan grabs the rim. There are a lot of reasons for Jokic to pray this game doesn’t go to overtime, now he’s one referee’s whistle from fouling out.

With a minute left, Jokic makes a spin move, kicks the ball to the corner, and, after Gary Harris misses, loses the rebound to smaller Spurs. Ten seconds later, McHale has advice: “I’d like to see Jokic in the post now.” But Kevin, are you noticing he can’t move? Jokic catches the ball in the pick-and-roll but can’t make sense of it. With a pass, he asks Murray to solve it. Murray makes the game-winner over Jokic’s man. The Spurs’ best offense has been attacking Jokic, the Nuggets’ has been ignoring him. On the Nuggets’ final possession, Jokic ends up wide-open. Murray doesn’t give him the ball and then misses. Jokic can’t rebound it, and thankfully the game ends not so much with a Nuggets win as a narrowly avoided loss.

Do better
Mike Malone sent his team to play their most important twelve minutes four-on-five; maybe the worst coaching decision of the playoffs. In the fourth quarter the most talented and biggest player on either roster shot one of nine, with two rebounds, three fouls, and the worst plus/minus of any player. In Game 2, with the score similar, Malone used a far better game plan, that counted less on war-like heroism and more on common sense. Jokic’s backup, Mason Plumlee, played productive minutes. After some rest, Jokic checked in and was much better at the end. Denver’s win was less taxing: At maximum fatigue, injury risk skyrockets. (Thankfully, Jokic didn’t get hurt.) Having red-lined so recently, Jokic surely goes into the second round a little diminished.

Making great decisions is tough in any area of life, and maybe even tougher now that good insight and fake news are packed together in a digital firehose. We all do our best, and we all get things wrong. And when we do, there’s some asshole with an email newsletter to tell the world about it.

I get why Malone did what he did.

But McHale? He has one job! To explain the game to us. And he really must do better. Curiosity would be a good start.

Ignorance is a useful tool for people who put their bodies on the line. If you’re about to storm a well-defended beach at Dunkirk, it pays to be fuzzy on specifics. McHale loves telling people to toughen up, to fight through, to storm the beaches. Athletes and soldiers must ignore pain and fatigue, self-talk themselves into the nearly impossible.

But the World War II battle of Dunkirk was abysmal military planning, the storming of a well-defended beach, a slaughter. (The “victory,” the reason there’s a movie about it, is the impressive scope and speed of the retreat.) Athletes must defy or sometimes deny obstacles, strategists must know them so perfectly they can devise ways around them.

McHale stopped playing in 1993. You wouldn’t know it from his commentary, but we have learned a lot about sports since then. Do your homework! Since McHale’s retirement, fields of study like exercise science and periodization have blossomed, and are convincing that NBA players are tired. Dog tired. It’s usually a long-term concern—too many get injured. But in some extreme cases, like in the case of Jokic, it is obvious on video, for instance when he can barely jump, run, grab the ball, protect the rim, or play winning basketball.

The Spurs may have a certain witchcraft aura, but one of their big innovations has been—duh— to use science here and there to do things that only seem weird to die-hard traditionalists. They have long led the league in the minutes their stars rested. Bad teams think they can’t afford to rest their players, because they need to win, but over Popovich’s time, the Spurs keep overachieving because they rest players.

It isn’t very Hollywood to scream “take a break” in timeouts, but it is truly a winning message, supported by thinking and research that are commonplace in other fields, and even other sports. This science has a hard time making it to basketball fans, though, because a tiny group of people—McHale, and retired players of his generation who dominate sports broadcasts—either can’t, or won’t, get their heads around new things.

It’s one thing to be confused. It’s another entirely to declare Malone’s Jokic gambit a great move. It was a disaster.

Coming later this week from TrueHoop: The third installment of our LeBron series, and David Thorpe’s views of the playoffs.