Every quarterback has a favorite receiver. They never drop a pass, always make the right read, and, after thousands of throws, catches, routes, and practice hours, perform in a way that makes telepathy seem real.
The Nuggets’ quarterback is Nikola Jokic, an observation made by teammate Paul Millsap after Denver beat Portland in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
”I consider him like a Tom Brady,” Millsap said. “He’s always going to pick you apart and make the right reads. Commend him for doing that at this stage in his career. It’s unbelievable.”
If Jokic is Brady, that makes Gary Harris his Julian Edelman; the ever-reliable wide receiver needed by every great field general. Their blooming synergy is one of the truest joys unfolding in these playoffs, a partnership that expands beyond the typical confines of star and role player. Denver could strictly use Harris, a 38 percent three-point shooter since his rookie year, as a floor spacer if it wanted. That’d allow Jokic to post up and roll with room to operate. Instead, the two navigate defensive rotations in myriad unique and thrilling ways. Their connection is bold, gorgeous, and entirely inimitable.
During the 2017-18 regular season, 124 of Jokic’s 803 assists were thrown to Harris, which was more than any other Nugget despite him catching 1216 (!) fewer passes than Jamal Murray. Those 124 assists represented the same number of times Draymond Green fed Kevin Durant and were a more potent distribution service than Ben Simmons to Joel Embiid, Kyle Lowry to DeMar DeRozan, and John Wall to Bradley Beal. Thanks to various injuries, Harris only started 48 games this season, but he still accounted for the second-most Jokic assists on the team despite finishing seventh in minutes played.
In these playoffs, Harris has been on the receiving end of 26 of Jokic’s 70 assists. No player has benefited more off any one other teammate’s passing. An absurd 51 percent of Harris’ field goals in the playoffs have been assisted by Jokic.
Their spontaneity makes their connection so magical. Almost none of Harris’s buckets are scripted. Instead, they’re jazzy and unpredictable.
Some come from a simple pitch off a wide dribble hand-off, where Harris will track a few feet above the elbow, stop, and shoot a wide open three as Jokic plows through his defender.
But that’s about as conventional as it gets. The two excel at simultaneously spotting a blemish in the defense and then exploiting it. Sometimes that’s on a simple back cut, where Harris knows how to take advantage of defenders who can’t help but turn their attention toward Jokic.
Jokic and Harris don’t play with their food when attacking the basket. So much of their alliance is about putting constant pressure on the rim in ways that don’t allow a peep of miscommunication for the defense.
In the playoffs, the only players who’ve snatched more assists at the rim from a single teammate are Montrezl Harrell, Clint Capela, and Steven Adams, all traditional big men receiving passes from guards. Jokic and Harris flip that idea around.
Harris benefits from Jokic’s genius in only the most efficient ways. If a seam presents itself, he will pretend he’s about to curl all the way around, then cut back towards the block, straight into a delicious drop pass that can’t and won’t be thrown by any other big man in the world. The degree of difficulty on this pass is akin to asking Jokic to bounce a grape through a keyhole.
Those opportunities evaporated during the regular season whenever Harris and Jokic didn’t share the floor. Denver’s guard made less than 48 percent of his shots in the restricted area without Jokic and nearly 60 percent when they were together. (The year before, that number went from 62.4 to 72.3 percent.)
The average Jokic pass stretches the imaginative boundary for words like “vision” and “anticipation.” When they’re thrown to Harris, it often looks like a trust-fall exercise. The two exist on the same wavelength, though, with a relationship that thrives on a willingness to shoot past what the defense believes is achievable.
The grandest hookups come in transition, be it off a make or miss, where Jokic’s fearless advance passes will lead Harris into an advantage that otherwise would not exist. Blink and you’re toast.
These passes are thrown with a necessary combination of faith and confidence, the foundation of which has been built over countless minutes of practice and live action. Watching them surface in the postseason has been awesome.
Jokic’s on-court relationship with every one of his teammates is, at worst, healthy. He sees crevices others can’t even imagine, refuses to settle, and elevates those around him in a way very few can.
But how he works with Harris is particularly special. Whenever they link up, Denver soars to a level most offenses only dream of reaching.