The Los Angeles Lakers went off to an early, two-game series lead over the Denver Nuggets in the 2020 NBA Western Conference Finals.
One anomaly worth nothing thus far is how often Alex Caruso has guarded All-Star Nikola Jokic. The 6-foot-5 guard has been tasked with occasionally defending the 7-foot big. During the first two games of the series, Caruso has guarded Jokic for six possessions.
Many would assume that Jokic, who averaged 19.9 points per game in the regular season and 25.4 points per game in the playoffs, should have little trouble at all when the Lakers have sent Caruso on him.
However, that hasn’t really been the case.
Most of these possessions came in the second game of the series. In Game 1, Caruso was called for a foul against the big (he didn’t record any other defensive possessions that night against the big Serbian), one that most folks watching a replay of the action would suggest should have been against Jokic
Regardless, Caruso has been an irritant and on-ball pest who has not allowed Jokic to find his typical rhythm as a ballhandler. Below, watch the two players go at it, zoomed in and slowed down for your convenience.
Jokic is 1-for-3 (33.3 percent) when guarded by Caruso, per NBA.com, with the Nuggets’ star’s one bucket coming out of a pick-and-pop jump shot.
These opportunities have been few and far between when compared to his usual rate. Only two players (Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic and San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge) recorded more pick-and-pop possessions during the regular season. Jokic averaged 1.9 possessions per game on these looks, per Synergy, yet recorded just one in the opening game of the series.
Overall, the way Caruso has made his impact shows on more than just field goal attempts. For example, watch the way that Caruso was able to contain Jokic in the first quarter of the second game.
Despite the height differential that Jokic had over Caruso, Denver wing Torrey Craig was unable to feed the big man in the high post for what should have been a mismatch bucket.
Then during the second quarter, Caruso came over as a help defender against Jokic. He left his man to join Dwight Howard for what proved to be a smart double-team against the All-Star.
This forced a turnover and a fastbreak opportunity for the Lakers. His defense helped his offense as the possession turned into a successful running dunk for Caruso on the other end of the court.
Later in the same half, he had another transition steal after a tipped pass intended for Jokic. He then went the entire length of the floor for a huge bucket.
This has become a trend considering that his steal percentage (2.0 percent) ranks in the 98th percentile among all combo guards in the playoffs, per Cleaning the Glass.
In fact, during postseason play thus far, the Lakers have recorded a turnover percentage that is 4.4 percent better when Caruso is on the floor compared to when he is not. According to Cleaning the Glass, that is the best mark among combo guards.
But the most unexpected moment between the two players came in the third quarter of the second game.
While he was being guarded by Caruso, Jokic had a post-up attempt on the right block after a dribble-move for a driving reverse lay-up from two feet.
Considering that Jokic was 257-of-358 (67.7 percent) from within five feet during the regular season, this was a wholly unexpected miss considering the undersized defender that was guarding him.
One lesson learned is that Caruso should not be discounted or overlooked as a defender. He ranked Top 10 on Real Defensive Plus-Minus among shooting guards, per ESPN.
He currently boasts the third-most defensive win shares on his team during the playoffs, trailing only LeBron James and Anthony Davis. He also has the best block percentage (1.8 percent) among all non-bigs and wings during the postseason.
While it may not be a safe assumption that Caruso continues to be tasked with guarding Jokic, he has shown thus far that he has been up for the unique and unexpected challenge.