Just four minutes and 38 seconds into the second quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic pulled back to his team’s bench after committing his third foul of the game. That’s when the team knew his 7-foot fitting savant was in trouble.
More than 500 km away, Dejan Milojevic, Jokic’s beloved Serbian coach, had already concluded that – long before the referee’s whistle. Milojevic had carefully tracked his former student on his big screen TV as he went through playback warm-ups and noted with some concern that the big man’s manner was uncharacteristically nervous.
“He was nervous,” Milojevic said. “That̵
But Jokic’s concerns were evident from the Serbian coach’s living room.
“I know his face,” his coach replied. “I can tell you what he thinks. I watched these guys several hours a day for many, many years. When I see that look, I know what it means.”
It involved a Game 1 dubbing where Jokic logged only 25 flawless minutes, followed by a heartbreaking Game 2 loss where Anthony Davis sniffed Nuggets upset outbursts with a clutch bar at the buzzer. While it was very twisted over the miscommunication that gave Davis a clean look, Denver’s sad box-out skills and the missed free throws, Milojevic was upset by what was going on in the final minutes.
Jokic scored the last 11 points of the game for his team, and if not for Davis’ game winner, the unorthodox center would have been the cause of the bubble.
“I know people are crazy that they lost,” said Milojevic, “but they proved they can play with these Lakers. Their defense was excellent. They should have a lot of confidence.”
Milojevic coached Jokic from 2012 to 15 in Belgrade for Mega Basket (now Mega Soccerbet) and was a big influence when it came to honing the center’s skills so he could fulfill his NBA dream. Although the coach of Jokic was happy with the game so far, but still wanted to change the line up. “I heard too much of, ‘No, Jokic, he can not do that,'” Milojevic said. “They said, ‘Look at him.’ I did it – and I saw someone special. “
Serbia’s famous coach spoke to this ESPN reporter on Tuesday, but since Serbia is six hours ahead of Orlando, Florida, (Game 3 started at 3 o’clock in Jokic’s home country), Milojevic was given a special exemption to skip game analysis. He tried to stay up earlier in the playoffs, but when the halftime hit around 4:30, Milojevic said he would inevitably nod off during the break. Now he goes to bed at a normal hour and watches the first thing in the morning without knowing the result, without advertising and long coaching challenges.
Like Jokic, Milojevic was once a Serbian center, a robust big man whose skill and perseverance on glass gave him the nickname “The Serbian Barkley.” He was a robust player who lifted weights in his kitchen. He was not negative about mixing it up in court if the need for physical presence were required. “I only started fighting if I defended someone else,” he insisted.
Milojevic had been known for his exceptional footwork, a skill he passed to Jokic. “I showed him a few things,” said his coach, “and after a week he had already passed me in ability.”
Jokic’s unusual skill set is a testament to his creativity. Still, Tim Connelly, Denver’s head of basketball operations, insists that Milojevic’s fingerprints are over Jokic’s game.
“I’ve spent so much time in countless gyms around the world, but Dejan quickly jumps out as completely different,” Connelly said. “He does not teach Nikola to” dribble, dribble, to the left shoulder. “It’s dribbles, dribbles and reaches under the elbow to shoot with his left hand.” There is no cookie-cutter learning. He teaches his guys to become unique players. “
Jokic showed patience on the court from the time he took a basketball and preferred to share the ball rather than dominate it. He was never a chiseled specimen and Milojevic discovered that he could easily be disconnected during conditioning unless something was at stake.
“Our conditioning exercises had all the winners and losers,” Milojevic said. “I made them as competitive as possible. I got Nikola’s best effort when I did it that way.
“People always talk about Nikola and if he’s in good shape. I say, ‘It depends on what you call good shape. Nikola is much stronger than people think. His body frame is … you see what you see. People look at him like he’s chubby, like he’s a fat guy who can ‘t run. But that is not the case. If you think so, he will hit you. “
Although Milojevic admits he had no idea Jokic would develop into an All-NBA talent, he always thought he had a chance because of his willingness to try just about anything on the basketball court. Of course, it came with some indigestion. Early in his career, Jokic threw crossed hills with no appearance, trying to thread the needle with almost impossible, bouncing passes, complete with backspin. His passport came between his legs, behind his back – even back over his head – a wonderful version of which was presented in the Game 7 victory over the Clippers in the semifinals of the Western Conference.
Shortly after the Nuggets drafted Jokic, Connelly expressed his disappointment to the big man that he was so conservative. “I told Nikola I was so transfixed by passing,” Connelly recalled. “I said” So why do you just turn the ball like everyone else? “He said, ‘In Mega, I’ll throw the ball out of my head and I’m still playing. Here’s a turnover and I’m sitting. “”
The early approach, Milojevic confirms, was entirely correct. “He made a lot of mistakes when he was younger,” he said. “I had to swallow a lot of things. He threw all those ridiculous passes – and that drove me crazy.
“But I saw something wonderful, so I did not want to focus his mind on mistakes. I released these things so that he could grow and learn from them.
“And now he stands out. There are a lot of great players in the NBA – superstars – but not many make their teammates better. That’s all Nikola ever wanted. He likes to pass more than to score goals. separates him – the creativity. That’s why when he threw the ball everywhere, I did not say to him “No!” There are not many players who can do what he does. So why stop the guy? “
Jokic’s offensive abilities include floaters, which he used to score for Denver’s opening basket in Game 3, post-ups, even a one-legged fall change (often from the wrong foot), like the one he sank over Davis in the last minute of the first half. , which helped Denver lead 63-53.
Recently, Jokic has also dropped some accurate and deadly 3-point bombs. He shoots almost 12% better in these playoffs in 2020 (42.9) from 3 than during the regular season (31.4). His pick-and-roll action with teammate Jamal Murray is pure basketball poetry.
“He is very difficult to protect because he plays in a different way at a different speed,” said Milojevic. “He shoots from the ground, which means the defense does not have time to react. People see him and say ‘He can not jump. “But what they should say is, ‘Look at that.’ When you play with two feet on the ground, you can release the ball faster and the defense does not have time to react. “
Milojevic is watching all the NBA Finals closely, as he hopes to join the league’s coach when his son Nikola (not named after Jokic, who was 7 years old when Milojevic’s son was born) has finished high school and is aiming to play college ball in America. Milojevic enjoyed a summery 2018 with the Houston Rockets and has gained great respect throughout the league.
“In normal times, he would speed up right away,” Connelly said, “but with the pandemic, there are unique travel and financial challenges.”
While considering his next move, Milojevic regularly writes with Jokic after, and sometimes before, every game. During the pandemic, Jokic attended a party in Serbia to celebrate Milojevic’s career, announcing a year earlier that he would retire from Mega 2020. That was where Jokic received COVID-19. His coach tested negative but still bears a bit of guilt that others were infected during one night to praise his success.
Jokic, who was asymptomatic, is in first-class playoff form and is eager to win a game at the Nuggets. The nerves, reports his old coach, have evaporated. Before falling asleep, Milojevic predicted a victory in the Game 3 Nuggets. The key, he said, was that Jokic would continue to be unpredictable in where the ball went – and to whom.
As Jokic’s mentor predicted, Denver won 114-106 – clutch shooting by Murray and a career night from Jerami Grant (26 points) held a furious fourth quarter rally by the Lakers. Jokic did his thing, chipping in 22 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists. Milojevic says he believes the best remains.
“He’s the best passer I’ve ever seen,” Milojevic explained, “so of course I’m proud. Yes, we showed him exercises to improve his vision, but you can not practice the things he does. They are different, like he. “
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