At this point, everyone has an idea that the Denver Nuggets’ two-time MVP Nikola Jokic is a basketball genius, savant, or whatever word equivalent the pundits are calling him these days.
But you don’t really know what that means and what kind of impact it can have on the outcome of a basketball game unless you are really paying attention. And in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, Jokic had another one of those moments of brilliance that requires close observation to pick up on.
Jokic is a genius.— Mat Issa (@matissa15) June 2, 2023
He's absolutely exhausted, yet he still picks up on the fact that the sideline is signaling for a Pistol action (this variation is called "21 Keep").
He notifies his teammates, they are on top of it, and it leads to a back-breaking turnover for Miami. pic.twitter.com/hvRmshmRNV
With just under eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Jokic garnered a trip to the foul line with his team up 12. Given the stakes of the situation, head coach Mike Malone decided to deviate from Jokic’s normal rest schedule and have him on the floor to start the fourth quarter after playing the entire third period. As a result, Jokic was visibly gassed when he stepped up to the charity stripe.
In that situation, most human beings (even world-class athletes) are thinking about two things, and two things only: 1) hitting those free throws and 2) breathing. They are certainly not being hyper-mindful of their surroundings. Jokic is not most human beings.
A common tendency of coaches whose team stands to get the ball back after a set of free throws is to call out the signal for the set they want their team to get into in the next possession. In this case, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra instructed his team to get into their Pistol series (a form of early offense that usually involves a three-man action with empty corner spacing and some sort of screening).
After canning his first free throw, Jokic caught wind of this and immediately told his teammates what was going on so they could prepare for it. He did this by making a pistol gesture with his hands. He then proceeded to hit his second free throw, scurry down the court, and play a part in derailing the 21 Keep action (one of the most common plays run out of the Pistol series) and forcing a Miami turnover.
Now, that’s what it means to be a basketball genius.