With the shot clock running down, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic spun to his left, took two dribbles, stepped behind the 3-point line with his left foot while twisting his body to face the basket, cocked the ball behind his head and released a high-arching, one-legged fadeaway just over the outstretched 7-foot-6 wingspan of Los Angeles Lakers star big man Anthony Davis.
ESPN play-by-play commentator Mike Breen shouted a few seconds later, his trademark call punctuating Jokic’s clutch shot in the Western Conference finals closeout game that left the Lakers players, fans inside Crypto.com Arena and a TV audience of millions shocked because of its high degree of difficulty.
Dirk Nowitzki, however, was not surprised.
Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks‘ legend, Hall of Fame Class of 2023 member and godfather of the one-legged fadeaway, wasn’t watching live as the Nuggets punched their ticket on May 22 to the franchise’s first NBA Finals. Traveling internationally with family, Nowitzki has limited his recent viewing of the playoffs to catching highlights the next morning.
“[Jokic’s] got a knack for making tough shots, so I was not really surprised that he ended up making that,” Nowitzki told ESPN. “He can put the release point all the way 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 bucket against the Lakers — plays off of the “Sombor Shuffle,” Jokic’s signature move that is often compared to Nowitzki’s fade.
Those types of shots, often delivered after the defense appears to have taken away all the decent options for Jokic, tend to deflate entire arenas while delivering staggering blows to even the best players in the league.
“I’m happy for him. He’s amazing, 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, when the two-time MVP splashed a series of incredibly difficult shots just before the shot-clock or end-of-quarter buzzer while the Nuggets swept the Lakers.
“Even when you guard 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 swished a bailout 26-foot stepback fadeaway in the second quarter of Game 4.
“So you do like this to him,” James said postgame, taking the cap off his head and tipping it.
Jokic shot 63.2% from the floor during the regular season, a figure typically seen only from centers whose shot diet consists primarily of dunks and putbacks, despite frequently taking jumpers and floaters that are considered tough shots for even the purest of sharpshooters.
According to NBA.com tracking data, 727 of Jokic’s 1,022 field goal attempts during the regular season qualified as tightly contested. He made a preposterous 64.6% of those shots. Jokic’s efficiency has dipped a bit during this playoff run but remains elite, particularly 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 tightly contested shots, several of which have been some variation of Nowitzki’s one-legged jumper and many coming with just seconds remaining on the shot or game clock.
In Jokic’s mind, there’s a benefit to having the ball in a situation where he needs to beat the buzzer. It 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 up a shot, which often results in unorthodox releases.
“It’s so easy to shoot when you know you’ve got 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 for a charge after driving instead of taking an open 3.
“Being off balance — I’m off balance my whole life, so that’s kind of normal for me.”
Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway is such an iconic shot that it’s honored both inside and outside Dallas’ American Airlines Center. Silhouettes of the shot have been featured on the Mavericks’ floor — located in the midrange areas 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 in the plaza in front of the arena on Dec. 25 this season.
Nowitzki’s fadeaway was always launched off his left leg. The Sombor Shuffle, which Jokic developed in 2017 during shooting workouts while recovering from a sprained left ankle, is launched off his right foot.
“It’s just something that works for him,” Nowitzki said. “I never liked shooting off that right foot on that one. I thought I felt it was super hard for me just to coordinate. It was easier off the left foot, but it actually looks pretty smooth for him off the right leg.
“There’s no way to get to it [as a defender] ’cause he’s also 7 feet and moving away from the defender on that shot. It’s just impossible to get to.”
Phoenix Suns superstar Kevin Durant, one of several players in the league who has incorporated Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway into his arsenal, said with a mix of admiration and disdain that he “hates” when Jokic hits such unorthodox shots.
“It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a miss,’ and then it goes straight in,” Durant said after Jokic scored 53 points in the Nuggets’ Game 4 loss in Phoenix, a performance highlighted by several tightly contested jumpers and floaters launched with unconventional angles and footwork. “He’s incredible.”
Nowitzki’s fadeaway off the left foot has become part of Jokic’s repertoire, along with all sorts of feathery midrange shots set up by unique footwork.
“He has the balance,” 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 shoot that shot well. He found that.
“Obviously he’s not the fastest, most athletic guy. It’s not as easy to keep driving by people and grind all the time. That’s just the shot that he can get off at any time, and he makes it look super easy.”