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Celtics’ defense manages to slow down MVP favorite Nikola Jokic

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In perhaps their best win of the season, the Celtics gave as good a defensive effort as you could ask for against The Joker.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Nikola Jokic has been the league’s most unsolvable force throughout the 2020-21 season. Though always an adept passer, he’s taken it upon himself to look for his shot more than ever, pairing his 8.8 assists with 26.3 points per game heading into Sunday’s matchup against the Celtics.

A player adept at both scoring and playmaking poses a lot of problems for opposing defenses. The goal isn’t to completely shut down both areas as much as it is to cut off one strength as best as possible. Jokic can score 30 points. He can hand out 10 assists. For the sake of Boston’s chances at a victory, he cannot be allowed to do both.

Jokic’s passing cut up the Celtics to the tune of 11 assists to just two turnovers. It’s difficult for even the best defenses to take away the type of skill Jokic doesn’t need much room to use like when--even with Robert Williams sagging off to protect the pass--he slices the ball to Facundo Campazzo for the and-1 layup.

But the three-man trio of Robert Williams, Grant Williams, and Tristan Thompson were crucial in limiting Jokic to just 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting en route to a 105-87 comeback victory in the Mile High.

One of the notable staples of Boston’s last few games has been the increase in physicality, sparked largely due to the return of Thompson.

“More toughness, more energy, he brings that energy,” Marcus Smart said of Thompson following a win over the Knicks in which the big man grabbed three offensive rebounds and blocked three shots in just 22 minutes. “He really controls the boards for us, and he does a really good job at it. He does a really good job of getting us extra possessions, does a really good job of protecting us when we make mistakes on the defensive end.”

“It was great to have him back, we missed him a lot. Just his presence out there, and how physical he is,” said Jayson Tatum.

So much of Jokic’s damage comes from his ability to simply overpower his matchups on his way to the shots he wants. Thompson is the type of player who offers sound resistance, forcing looks even an incredible shot maker like Jokic has trouble making.

Following a quiet first half in which he was just 1-of-5 from the field for three points, Jokic turned it on with 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the third quarter. He ran in transition and crashed the offensive glass. Jokic also exploited Boston’s desire to keep a big on him at all times by screening and popping out before taking his slower-footed matchup off the dribble as the Nuggets built a lead as high as 14 in the frame.

But as the Celtics flipped the script in the fourth quarter to build a double-digit lead of their own, the Nuggets tried mounting a comeback through their leading man. Boston then tasked Grant Williams with the job of guarding Jokic with a specific strategy in mind: body him with a smaller, stronger defender and have help come if necessary.

Doing so essentially snuffed out Denver’s pick-and-roll game. Jokic tried to post up the 6’6’’ forward, but Williams’ 236-pound frame made him a tough roadblock. And Brad Stevens made sure to have Robert Williams lurking on the weak side to offer interior assistance, essentially daring Aaron Gordon and Will Barton to beat Boston from beyond the arc.

On three straight possessions, Jokic tried to post up Grant Williams. And on three straight possessions he was met by physical resistance, two of which included trying to loft a shot over the outstretched arm of Robert Williams. He missed all three attempts, all but locking down a Celtics victory.

“Jokic is a hard guy (to guard),” Stevens said in his postgame presser. “When you put two on the ball in pick-and-roll, it makes it really difficult. So, we went to switching all those things, putting our big on somebody else. So, I thought our guys did a really good job of that.”

Only 13 other times has Jokic scored fewer than 20 points in a game this season. He hasn’t shot as poorly from the field (40.0 percent) since way back on Feb. 21 in an eight-point road loss to the Hawks.

“When we’re at our best, we’re pushing catches out. We’re pressuring the ball. We’re making things tough for guys,” Grant Williams said. “Through most of the first half including the start of the third quarter they were just getting whatever they wanted. So we just decided to start picking up and being a little more ourselves and it ended up working out.”