Tim McMahonESPN staff writer6 minute reading
With the shot clock running, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic spun left, took two dribbles, stepped behind the 3-point line with his left foot while twisting his body to face the basket, strapped the ball behind his head and unleashed a high-arching, one-legged fadeaway just over the sprawling 7 -foot-6 wingspan of Los Angeles Lakers star big man Anthony Davis.
ESPN play-by-play commentator Mike Breen called out a few seconds later, his trademark call punctuating Jokic’s clutch shot in the Western Conference Finals that left Lakers players, fans inside Crypto.com Arena and a television audience of millions stunned due to its high level of difficulty.
Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t surprised though.
Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks legend, Hall of Fame Class of 2023 member and godfather of the one-legged fadeaway, did not watch live when the Nuggets punched their ticket May 22 to the franchise’s first NBA Finals. Traveling internationally with family, Nowitzki has limited his recent playoff viewing to catching highlights the next morning.
“[Jokic’s] got a knack for making tough shots, so I wasn’t really surprised he ended up making it,” Nowitzki told ESPN. “He can put the trigger point right behind his head and then shoot it super high in the air with unbelievable mark .”
The “Sombor Sling” — the nickname Nuggets coach Michael Malone and some local media members coined to describe the unforgettable game against the Lakers — plays off of the “Sombor Shuffle,” Jokic’s signature move that is often compared to Nowitzki’s fade.
These types of shots, often delivered after the defense appears to have taken away all decent opportunities for Jokic, tend to empty entire arenas while dealing dizzying blows to even the best players in the league.
“I’m happy for him. He’s great, one of the best players in the world,” Nowitzki said. “And he’s showing that right now on this stage.”
Jokic’s ability to make unorthodox look easy was on full display in the West Finals, as the two-time MVP drained a series of incredibly difficult shots just before the shot clock or the end of the quarter as the Nuggets swept the Lakers.
“Even when you’re guarding him for one of the best possessions that you think you can guard him,” Lakers superstar forward LeBron James said, “he puts the ball behind his head Larry Bird-style and shoots it 50 feet in the air and it goes in like he did four or five times this series.”
James was draped all over Jokic when the center hit a 26-foot stepback save in the second quarter of Game 4.
“So you do this to him,” James said after the game, taking the cap off his head and tipping it.
Jokic shot 63.2% from the floor during the regular season, a number typically only seen from centers whose shooting diet consists primarily of dunks and putbacks, despite frequently taking jumpers and floaters that are considered hard shots for even the purest sharpshooters.
According to NBA.com tracking data, 727 of Jokic’s 1,022 field goal attempts during the regular season qualified as hard contested. He made an abysmal 64.6% of those shots. Jokic’s efficiency has dipped a bit during this playoff run, but remains elite, especially for a player averaging 30.5 points, 13.4 rebounds and 10.1 assists. He’s shooting 54.6% from the floor and 57.7% on hard-contested shots, several of which have been a variation of Nowitzki’s one-legged jumper, and many coming with just seconds left on the shot or game clock.
In Jokic’s mind, there is an advantage to having the ball in a situation where he has to beat the buzzer. That eliminates any hesitation Jokic, a pass-first big man averaging a triple-double during the playoffs, might have to let it fly. All he has to do from there is figure out how to get a shot, which often results in unorthodox releases.
“It’s so easy to shoot when you know you’re going to shoot it, so you just find a way to shoot it,” Jokic said after sweeping the Lakers, recalling a possession late in Game 4 when he was called to a charge after driving instead of taking an open 3.
“Being out of balance – I’ve been out of balance my whole life, so it’s kind of normal for me.”
Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway is such an iconic shot that it is honored both inside and outside Dallas’ American Airlines Center. Silhouettes of the shot have been displayed on the Mavericks’ floor — located in the middle area above the right blocks, one of his favorite spots — since the season following Nowitzki’s retirement after 2018-19. A nearly 24-foot white bronze statue of the shot was unveiled on the plaza in front of the arena on Dec. 25 this season.
Nowitzki’s fadeaway was always launched from his left leg. The Sombor Shuffle, which Jokic developed in 2017 during shooting practice while recovering from a sprained left ankle, is launched by his right foot.
“It’s just something that works for him,” Nowitzki said. “I never liked shooting off the right foot on it. I thought I felt like it was super hard for me to just coordinate. It was easier off the left foot, but it actually looks pretty smooth to him off the right leg.
“There is no way to get to it [as a defender] because he’s also 7-foot and moves away from the defender on that shot. It’s just impossible to get to.’
Phoenix Suns superstar Kevin Durant, one of several players around the league who has incorporated Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway into his arsenal, said with a mixture of admiration and disdain that he “hates” when Jokic hits such unorthodox shots.
“It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a miss,’ and then it goes right in,” Durant said after Jokic scored 53 points in the Nuggets’ Game 4 loss in Phoenix, a performance highlighted by several hotly contested jumpers and floaters that were launched with unconventional angles and footwork. “He’s incredible.”
Nowitzki’s left-foot fadeaway has become part of Jokic’s repertoire, along with all sorts of feathery midrange shots set up by unique footwork.
“He’s got the poise,” Nowitzki said. “He’s got the touch for it. He’s got the high release point. He’s got all the things you need to make that shot well. He found it.
“Obviously, he’s not the fastest, most athletic guy. It’s not that easy to keep running people over and laughing all the time. It’s just the shot he can get off at any given time and he makes it look super easy.”