NBA playoffs: From afar, watching Lakers-Nuggets with the 'Serbian Barkley'

Just four minutes and 38 seconds into the second quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic retreated to his team's bench having committed his third foul of the game. That's when the team knew its 7-foot passing savant was in trouble.

More than 5,000 miles away, Dejan Milojevic, Jokic's beloved Serbian coach, had already concluded that -- well in advance of the referee's whistle. Milojevic had tracked his former pupil carefully on his big-screen television as Jokic went through pregame warm-ups and noted, with some dismay, that the big man's mannerisms were uncharacteristically jittery.

"He was nervous," Milojevic said. "That's why he had so many fouls. I watched that happen and thought, 'I hope no matter what is going wrong on the court, he will stay calm.'"

Jokic's apprehension was palpable from the Serbian coach's living room.

"I know his face," his coach said. "I can tell what he is thinking. I watched these guys several hours a day for many, many years. When I see that look, I know what it means."

It meant a Game 1 drubbing in which Jokic logged just 25 foul-plagued minutes, followed by a heartbreaking Game 2 loss in which Anthony Davis snuffed the Nuggets' upset intentions with a clutch jumper at the buzzer. Although there was much hand-wringing over the miscommunication that gave Davis a clean look, Denver's woeful box-out skills and the missed free throws, Milojevic was buoyed by what was trending in the final minutes.

Jokic scored the final 11 points of the game for his team, and if not for Davis' game winner, the unorthodox center would have been the cause celebre du jour of the bubble.

"I know people are mad they lost," Milojevic said, "but they proved they can play with these Lakers. Their defense was excellent. They should have much confidence."

Milojevic coached Jokic from 2012 to '15 in Belgrade for Mega Basket (now Mega Soccerbet) and was a major influence in honing the center's skills so he could fulfill his NBA dream. Although the coach was certain that Jokic had the talent to succeed, there were many who were skeptical that he possessed the personal discipline to make it.

"I heard too much of, 'No, Jokic, he can't do it,'" Milojevic said. "They said, 'Look at him.' I did -- and I saw someone special."

Serbia's celebrated coach spoke to this ESPN reporter on Tuesday, but because Serbia is six hours ahead of Orlando, Florida (Game 3 started at 3 a.m. in Jokic's homeland), Milojevic received special dispensation to skip in-game analysis. He attempted to stay up earlier in the playoffs, but when halftime hit around 4:30 am, he said he would inevitably nod off during the break. Now he goes to bed at a normal hour and watches first thing in the morning without knowing the results, free of commercials and lengthy coach's challenges.

Like Jokic, Milojevic was once a Serbian center, a rugged, undersized big man whose deft skills and tenacity on the glass earned him the nickname "The Serbian Barkley." He was a sturdy player who lifted weights in his kitchen. He was not averse to mixing it up on the court should a physical presence be required. "I only started fighting if I was defending someone else," he said.

Milojevic was known for his exceptional footwork, a skill that he passed along to Jokic. "I showed him some things," his coach said, "and after a week, he had already passed me in ability."

Jokic's unusual skill set is a testament to his creativity. Yet Tim Connelly, Denver's head of basketball operations, insists that Milojevic's fingerprints are all over Jokic's game.

"I've spent so much time in countless gyms all over the world, but Dejan quickly jumps out as completely different," Connelly said. "He's not teaching Nikola to 'dribble, dribble, to the left shoulder.' It's 'dribble, dribble, and reach under the elbow to shoot with the left hand.' There's no cookie-cutter learning. He's teaching his guys to become unique players."

Jokic exhibited patience on the court from the time he picked up a basketball, and he preferred to share the ball rather than dominate it. He was never a chiseled specimen, and Milojevic discovered that he could easily become disengaged during conditioning unless there was something at stake.

"Our conditioning drills all had 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 whether 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 some fat guy that is not able to run. But that is not so. If you think that, he will beat you."

Although Milojevic admits that he had no idea that Jokic would develop into an All-NBA talent, he says he always believed that Jokic had a chance because of his willingness to try nearly anything on the basketball court. Naturally, that came with some bouts of indigestion. Early in his career, Jokic threw no-look cross-court bullets and tried to thread the needle with nearly impossible bounce passes, complete with backspin. His pass offerings came from between the legs, behind the back and even backward over his head -- a marvelous version of which was unveiled in the Nuggets' Game 7 win over the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals.

Shortly after the Nuggets drafted Jokic, Connelly expressed to the big man his disappointment that Jokic was being so conservative. "I told Nikola that I was so transfixed by passing," Connelly said. "I said, 'So why are you just reversing the ball like everyone else?' He said, 'In Mega, I throw the ball off my head, and I still play. Here, it's a turnover, and I sit.'"

That early approach, Milojevic confirms, was completely accurate. "He made a lot of mistakes when he was younger," he said. "I had to swallow a lot of things. He was throwing all these ridiculous passes -- and it drove me crazy.

"But I saw something wonderful, so I didn't want to focus his mind on mistakes. I let these things go so he could grow and learn from them.

"And now he stands out. There are many great players in the NBA league -- superstars -- but not many are making their teammates better. That's all that Nikola ever wanted. He enjoys passing more than scoring. That's what separates him -- the creativity. That's why when he was throwing the ball all over the place, I did not tell him, 'No!' Not many players can do what he does. So why stop the guy?"

Jokic's offensive capabilities include floaters, which he utilized to score Denver's opening basket in Game 3, post-ups and even a one-legged fallaway shuffle (often off the wrong foot), such as the one he sank over Davis in the final minute of the first half Tuesday, which helped stake Denver to a 63-53 lead.

Lately, Jokic has also dropped some accurate and lethal 3-point bombs. He's shooting nearly 12 percentage points better from 3 in these playoffs (42.9%) than he did during the regular season (31.4%). His pick-and-roll actions with teammate Jamal Murray are pure basketball poetry.

"He's very difficult to guard because he plays in a different way at a different speed," Milojevic said. "He shoots from the ground, which means the defense doesn't have time to react. People see him and say, 'He can't jump.' But what they should be saying is, 'Look at that. When you play with two feet on the ground, you can release the ball more quickly, and the defense doesn't have time to react.'"

Milojevic is watching all the NBA playoff games closely, as he hopes to join the league's coaching ranks now that his son, also Nikola (not named after Jokic, who was 7 years old when Milojevic's son was born), has finished high school and aspires to play college ball in the U.S. Milojevic enjoyed a 2018 summer league stint with the Houston Rockets and has earned great respect throughout the league.

"In normal times, he'd be snapped up right away," Connelly said, "but with the pandemic, there are unique challenges in terms of travel and finances."

While he contemplates his next move, Milojevic texts regularly with Jokic after and sometimes before each game. During the pandemic, Jokic attended a party in Serbia celebrating the career of Milojevic, who had announced a year earlier that he would step down from Mega in 2020. It was there that Jokic contracted COVID-19. His coach tested negative but still carries a bit of guilt about the fact that others were infected during an evening to toast his success.

Jokic, who was asymptomatic, is in prime playoff form, eager to put a win on the ledger for the Nuggets. The nerves, his old coach says, have evaporated.

Before he went to sleep Tuesday, Milojevic predicted a Game 3 Nuggets victory. The key, he said, was for Jokic to continue to be unpredictable in where and to whom the ball is going.

As Jokic's mentor foresaw, Denver prevailed by a score of 114-106. Clutch shooting by Murray and a career night from Jerami Grant (26 points) held off a furious fourth-quarter rally by the Lakers. Jokic did his part, chipping in 22 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists. Milojevic says he believes the best is yet to come from Jokic.

"He's the best passer I've ever seen," Milojevic said, "so of course I am proud. Yes, we showed him drills to improve his vision, but you cannot practice the things he does. They are different, like him."

MORE: MacMullan watching playoff basketball from afar:
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Lakers-Blazers Game 4 with Trevor Ariza
Bucks-Heat Game 2 with Milwaukee owner Marc Lasry
Raptors-Celtics Game 5 with Danny Ainge