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How Is Nikola Jokic This Good Again?

Early in the third quarter against Memphis on Tuesday, Jokic caught the ball near the perimeter, instantly tossed the ball between his legs without looking and found a cutting Bruce Brown for a dunk, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd. That was the amuse-bouche for minutes later, when he coolly tossed a blind over-the-head pass from the low post to Aaron Gordon for another dunk.

“You just have to be ready for the ball, no matter where you are or where he is on the court because he can find you,” Zeke Nnaji, a third-year reserve forward for the Nuggets, said in the locker room on Sunday.

When Jokic is on the court, the Nuggets’ offense is on par with the league’s best teams. When he sits, it is the worst, a remarkable swing. This year, teammates like Gordon, Brown and guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are having great years, in part because of the open shots Jokic has created. In the case of Brown, roughly half his shots have been “open” or “wide open,” according to the league’s tracking numbers. Last year, when Brown was with the Nets, that number was only 38.3 percent.

One of the most effective plays the Nuggets run involves Jokic catching the ball around the free-throw line, leaving the entire court at his disposal. If a double team comes, Jokic casually finds shooters or cutters. If he is single-covered, Jokic simply backs down the defender or shoots over him. He doesn’t move quickly. He gets to where he needs to go, or makes sure the ball does.

Jokic, for the third straight season, is leading the league in multiple advanced statistical categories, in large part because of his ruthless efficiency. He’s averaging 24.7 points a game, and his true shooting percentage (a measure of scoring efficiency that factors in free throws) — is 68.8 percent. No one has ever averaged 20 points per game with at least 69 percent true shooting for a season. (During the 1981-82 season, Artis Gilmore averaged 18.5 points a game on 70.2 percent true shooting.)

And Jokic does have shortcomings: He’s not a strong defender, even though he’s the only center in the league’s top 20 in steals. Opposing teams with quick guards often look to attack him when he’s on defense. In the two games this week, Hornets and Grizzlies guards sought Jokic out in transition and stepped right around him for easy layups.

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