After a hard-fought game 7 against the Utah Jazz, the 3-seed Denver Nuggets have earned their rightful place in the second round against the 2-seed LA Clippers. Read on for a full second round series preview.
The Big Picture
After the Clippers blew game 4 in their first round series and fell to 2-2 against the Dallas Mavericks, things had potential to go badly. But narratives are fickle, and the Clippers’ bounce back to dominate game 5 by a historic 43-point margin and emphatically close out the series in game 6 left their two first-round losses as just footnotes, learning experiences for what was clearly proven to be the better team.
They’ll hope to need to learn less in the second round, though. I’ve said it a lot: nobody is crowned champion in the first round. For teams that make it all the way to the Finals, the playoffs last for two months and something like 25 games (the champion Toronto Raptors played 24 last year, the runners-up Golden State played 22). No team can reach their peak in game 1 of the playoffs and maintain it for 20+ games. It’s about growth, it’s about fighting through adversity, about coming together to become comfortable in a shortened playoff rotation and finding ways to win games where you aren’t playing well and have to scrap to come away with a victory you didn’t deserve.
The Clippers’ six-game victory against the Mavericks wasn’t as strong as it could have been, so I’m not going to gush with praise, but I will say that putting their foot down in game 5 required a mental toughness that wouldn’t have been required in an easier series. It’s the antithesis of what happened to the Milwaukee Bucks, who were able to sleepwalk to a 5-game series victory against the awful Orlando Magic and then got punched in the mouth in game 1 of the second round by the Miami Heat. At no point since arriving in the Orlando bubble did the Bucks have a “we need to find a way to be better” moment, and as a result, they came into the second round far from their best.
For all the headaches the Mavericks gave the Clippers in the first round, we can thank Dallas for this: the massive comeback in game 4 that culminated in Doncic’s overtime buzzer-beater made the Clippers say “we need to find a way to be better.”
The playoffs are full of those moments. When you beat an opponent, they step up their game and try to respond. When your opponent beats you, you’ve gotta find a way to step up your game and respond. Eventually, you either fall short of shifting yet one gear higher, or you find the answer enough times that you’re the last team standing. The Mavs made the Clippers better, but there’s more growth ahead if the road they’re on ends with a title.
Game 1: Thursday, September 3rd at 6:00pm PT, TNT
Game 2: Saturday, September 5th at 6:00pm PT, TNT
Game 3: Monday, September 7th at 6:00pm PT, TNT
Game 4: Wednesday, September 9th at 6:00pm PT, ESPN
Game 5 (if necessary): Friday, September 11th, Time TBA, TNT
Game 6 (if necessary): Sunday, September 13th, Time TBA, ESPN
Game 7 (if necessary): Tuesday, September 15th, Time TBA, ESPN
Perhaps no bubble team has had to make as demanding a journey in the last month as the Denver Nuggets. Starting small forward Will Barton never made it on the court, ultimately leaving the bubble to work on a mysterious knee ailment. Starting point guard Jamal Murray missed the first four bubble games. He’s the guy who had two 50-point games in the first round–safe to say he’s important. Starting shooting guard Gary Harris, who happens to be the Nuggets’ best defender, missed every seeding game and the first five games of the first round, returning to play a crucial role off the bench in games 6 and 7 after not playing in a game for six months.
After a successful pre-COVID regular season left Denver looking pretty clearly like the third-best team in the Western Conference, they came into the bubble and had to learn how to play with what amounted to major roster turnover (with a team that was severely positionally unbalanced, with too many forwards and centers available without options at guard). Case in point: rookie forward Michael Porter, Jr. played 48 of the team’s 65 pre-COVID games, averaging 14 minutes per game and starting just once. In the bubble? He started all seven of the team’s first seeding games before resting in their final contest, playing 33 minutes per game. He also started the first three games of the first round and played 30+ minutes in each of the first two before coach Mike Malone pulled him early in Denver’s embarrassing game 3 blowout loss.
The Nuggets had to figure it out. They played new, weird, oversized lineups without some of their best players and with some rarely-used and deeply-flawed depth pieces entering the rotation. They found a way to win three seeding games (and would have won more if they hadn’t prioritized rest for their short-handed lineup). They won in overtime in game 1 without two starters despite Donovan Mitchell exploding for fifty-seven points. After dropping the next three games while playing abysmal defense to fall behind 3-1 in the series, they adjusted their starting lineup and clawed back to win the series in 7 games.
Denver got dealt a raw hand in the bubble. Injuries forced them into “we need to find a way to be better” moments before seeding play even began. Donovan Mitchell forced them into a “we need to find a way to be better” moment during game 1. The Jazz forced them into a “we need to find a way to get better moment” after game 3’s blowout–and reinforced it with a game 4 victory after Denver didn’t respond initially. But they did find a way.
Unfortunately for the Nuggets, the test is only going to get harder, and they aren’t going to get a lot of time to recover. The Jazz had the 10th-best offense in the NBA this year and the 13th-best defense, and they played the first round without their second-leading scorer in Bojan Bogdanovic. The Clippers had the 2nd-best offense and 5th-best defense in the league this year. If anyone deserves a reprieve, it’s the Nuggets, but their reward for winning Tuesday night’s game 7 is 48 hours to find a way to get better. That’s not a lot of time, and Jamal Murray showed it in his live reaction to finding out how short the turnaround would be before game 1:
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- Exploiting Denver’s defense: The Denver Nuggets were only an average defensive team this season, and they’ve been miles worse in the bubble. Through six games of their first-round series against the Jazz, Denver was allowing 119 points per game. Utah’s offense is only ok, and significantly limited by Bogdanovic’s absence. We can debate endlessly about how much of Utah’s hotter-than-normal shooting was randomness vs Denver’s poor defense, and the fact that the Nuggets have played without their starting wings since arriving in Orlando. Still, even if Denver’s abysmal defense in the bubble won’t be as abysmal in this series, it certainly isn’t going to be elite, and there are weak points.
Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ two best players, are both only average defensively (there’s plenty of discourse about each being horrible, but it’s a tad exaggerated–still, you want to target them and make them work on that end). It is hard to be a good defensive team in the modern, pace-and-space, four-out, pick-and-roll NBA if you can’t guard the point guard and center spots. Here’s the thing, though: nothing about the Clippers’ offense is designed to pick on those weaknesses. LA gets their points from wing isolations, and while there’s no reason to believe that the Nuggets are going to be better at defending that than anyone else in the league, it also means the Clippers might not pick on Denver’s defense as much as you might expect at first glance.
Some offensive wrinkles for LAC could include various ways of hunting Murray and Jokic in various ball-screen actions. If Lou Williams is at point guard next to the team’s star wings, Murray will have to be guarding him, and he’s the team’s best pick-and-roll ball-handler. Doc Rivers may look to go small for stretches to force Jokic to defend a mobile player like Marcus Morris. Murray and Jokic defending a Williams/Morris pick-and-pop is just what Denver’s defense wants to avoid. Assuming Murray normally guards Williams, Patrick Beverley, or Landry Shamet, the Clippers can look to use their lead guard as a screener and either get Murray switched on to George or Leonard or get good looks for one of those three lead guard options, all of whom are lethal shooters.
- Lou Williams: The perennial sixth man of the year is one of the Clippers’ most important players, and probably their best offensive creator: he’s a more natural pick-and-roll ball-handler than either George or Leonard, and he led the team in assists this year while playing off the bench. The problem with Lou, of course, is his defense. He’s never been a good defender, and LA’s shocking eagerness to concede switches has made him easy for other teams to pick on. But we saw how great Lou can be in the Clippers’ narrow game 4 loss, where he had 36 points and 5 assists on 13-20 shooting to keep LA in the game. Denver should provide Lou with a bit of a feast-or-famine series: with Rivers’ bench-heavy lineups, Williams won’t be covered for defensively and smothering him will be the focal point of Denver’s defense, while in minutes with the starters, Lou will face much more favorable match-ups. He can hide far more effectively on defense against players like Monte Morris, Gary Harris, and Torrey Craig, and won’t be asked to do much if the Clippers’ All-NBA defenders are covering Murray and Jokic. Then, offensively, he’ll be able to attack Murray while Denver’s primary defenders focus on the Clippers’ star wings.
- Sustainable Shooting: Much of Denver’s early struggles against the Jazz were tied to some unsustainable hot shooting from Utah early in the series–they shot a blistering 47% from deep across their three wins in games 2, 3, and 4. Much of Denver’s success in their comeback was tied to some unsustainable shooting of their own: in their three wins before game 7’s slugfest, they made over half of their threes.
Without taking anything away from Jamal Murray, who had a legendary first round series, we have to expect him to come back down to earth in the second round. For his career, Murray’s a 44% field goal shooter and a 36% three-point shooter. Each of his four NBA seasons has been within a tick or two of those marks after some growth from slightly worse numbers as a rookie. He scored 20.6 points per 36 minutes this season. Against Utah: 29.9 points per 36 minutes, 55% from the field, 53% from three. He’s not going to average that over the next seven games.
On the Clippers’ side, 40% from three over the course of the first round is still above-average, but still reasonable considering the outlier of game 5’s blowout. What’s going to improve, though, is Paul George’s play. LA’s second star shot just 35.8% from the field and 27.5% from deep in the first round–even with his somewhat-undeserved reputation as a poor playoff performer, those numbers are far below PG’s normal playoff efficiency. George had a refreshingly candid moment after game 5 where he discussed how bubble isolation and poor performances had affected his mental health, and seemed much more like himself in the final two games of the series (even though he didn’t shoot well in game 6, it was a normal bad PG game, not three shockingly horrible PG games in a row).
- The MPJ Factor: Outside of Jokic and Murray, the Nuggets’ roster is full of guys who, simply put, shouldn’t beat you offensively. That’s not a knock on Denver’s role players: I actually like all of Monte Morris, Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig, and Mason Plumlee (Paul Millsap, sadly, seems to be past a productive point of his basketball career). Those six guys, the six guys who are going to play for the Nuggets in this series besides Murray, Jokic, and Michael Porter Jr., combined for 18 20-point performances in a combined 370 appearances this season. None of them are bad players, and they all have important roles to play in Denver’s hopes in this series, but you probably won’t see explosive scoring from anyone in this group unless Grant, who has stepped up his shooting in a big way the last two seasons, gets a lot of open looks from beyond the arc.
That means that beyond Denver’s two stars, if there’s one guy who is likely to have a really explosive offensive night in this series, it’s youngster Michael Porter Jr., who went 14th in the 2019 NBA Draft, immediately after the Clippers traded the 12th pick to move up to 11th and select Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and then picked up Jerome Robinson with the 13th pick. Porter is far from a reliable or consistent player at this point in his career, and his missed coverages defensively have cost him Mike Malone’s trust, but he broke 20 points four times in the seven seeding game appearances he had, and hit 30 in two of those. None of the Denver’s other role players had a 30-point game this season. Porter is the only Nugget who can punish the “make everyone else beat us” strategy.
- Monte Morris: One of the most painful sub-plots of the Clippers’ first-round series against the Mavericks was LA’s second unit being absolutely torched by Trey Burke and Seth Curry. A bit of it had to do with those guys being good scorers who are capable of hot streaks and happened to hit one concurrently. A lot of it had to do with the Clippers’ terrible second-unit backcourt defense. Reggie Jackson and Lou Willams are both well-below-average defenders, Landry Shamet is mediocre at best, and Montrezl Harrell is more of a buoy than an anchor protecting the rim behind that crew. The Nuggets don’t have an army of potent scoring guards who can punish the Clippers in the same way, but if there’s one guy to keep an eye on, it’s Monte Morris.
Morris is the antithesis of Reggie Jackson: a small guard who doesn’t have the physical tools or raw talent to be a starter in the league, but has supreme poise and decision-making to be an incredibly reliable backup point guard. Monte played 22 minutes a night in 73 games this year and turned the ball over just 53 times. Fifty-three turnovers in 1,636 minutes. Jackson had 28 turnovers in 362 regular-season minutes for the Clippers.
Monte Morris won’t have an obvious stretch where he lights you up like Curry, but he is exactly the kind of guy who can quietly have 15 points on 6-8 shooting, 5 assists, and 0 turnovers in 20 minutes to keep the Nuggets afloat when Jamal Murray is off the floor. That kind of performance can do something like cut into a Clippers lead while the stars rest early the fourth quarter and turn an LAC advantage into a coin flip down the stretch.
- Defending Stars: Both teams are going to have interesting choices to make in this series as they match up with the others’ stars. The Clippers actually have a number of weapons to throw at Jamal Murray: Patrick Beverley will pester him for stretches, alternated with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard smothering him with length. Without other threats on the wing, the Clippers can focus their elite one-on-one defenders on Murray. They’ll even be happy to switch Marcus Morris onto him to play him physically if he attempts to get to the rim. Keep an eye on how aggressive Murray is getting to the rim depending on who LA has in at center, as the Mavericks had significantly less success when Zubac was guarding the rim instead of Harrell.
Nikola Jokic presents a different challenge. Ivica Zubac was a huge part of LAC’s first-round success, and is an excellent rim protector, but he’s going to have a much harder time defending pick-and-pops and he typically isn’t great at sticking to shooting big men. It wouldn’t shock me if the Clippers work in some of the creative rotations they used against Dallas, where Zubac was matched up with Dorian Finney-Smith to allow him to sag into the lane more defensively. Rivers may abandon players like Paul Millsap and Torrey Craig so that Zubac can stay down low to protect the rim and defend Jokic in the post, while Morris can follow Jokic on possessions where he floats to the perimeter and contest shots, contain drives, and hedge/switch on ball screens. Montrezl Harrell doesn’t have much hope of defending Jokic, but the Clippers can deploy him selectively as a wrecking ball who can counter-act Jokic’s offensive production by attacking him in pick-and-rolls on the other end and attempting to get him into foul trouble.
For the Nuggets, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard present the same problem they do to every team in the league. Harris is Denver’s best defender, but he’s undersized on the wing at 6’4″, so it’s hard to imagine him effectively contesting Leonard. It makes far more sense to deploy Harris against George, where he may actually frustrate PG at times, and turn the Clippers into a one-star team offensively. Jerami Grant will likely get the call against Leonard due to his length and mobility, but I’m not sure that anyone is really going to do much to bother Kawhi. Look for Torrey Craig to be used in a pretty big role as well, perhaps drawing minutes against both guys and/or using his length to try and contain Lou Williams on the second unit.
- Denver’s lineup: Mike Malone adjusted to evolving availabilities throughout the bubble, finally settling on Monte Morris, Jerami Grant, and Paul Millsap as his three starters alongside Murray and Jokic.
I can’t imagine that those will be his starters in game 1 against LAC. The Clippers start all three of George, Leonard, and Marcus Morris. Denver keeping that lineup the same would require either Murray or Monte Morris to guard one of those three Clippers wings. No way.
Gary Harris, who came off the bench in games 6 and 7 after returning from injury, should move into Morris’ place in the starting lineup. You also have to wonder if Malone will finally make the painful choice to move trusted veteran Paul Millsap to the bench–despite starting all seven first-round games, he played fewer than 20 minutes in five of them as Malone clearly trusts Porter more offensively and Craig more defensively. With Craig, the Clippers can leave him alone to play a more compact defense focused on Murray and Jokic. With Porter, the Clippers have to stay home and defend him but can hunt him relentlessly on the other end of the floor. Millsap is a bit in-between on both counts.
- Rest Advantage: It’s no secret that the Clippers have a rest advantage over Denver heading into the series after completing their first-round series on Sunday. But, without getting too far ahead of ourselves, we can also track a potential rest advantage in the Western Conference Finals depending on how these second-round series play out. I only mention this because the Clippers will start their series one day before the Lakers, meaning that even if both series end in the same number of games, LAC will likely have 2 days off heading into WCF game 1 compared to LAL’s one-day break. But if the Clippers’ series runs longer than the Lakers’ the situation will be reversed, and that extra day off between series can make a big difference. It’s worth keeping track of as both second-round series progress.
- Pace: In addition to the Clippers having more depth and more rest than Denver, LA plays at a much faster pace: the 8th-fasted in the league this year compared to the Nuggets at just 29th. Jokic in particular is a slow (but methodical and surgical) player who likes to play at his own pace. The more the Clippers can speed him up and pressure Jamal Murray on the ball to stop Denver from being comfortable offensively, and make the already-tired Nuggets run back on transition defense, the more that Denver’s fatigue and low pace could create a huge crisis for LAC to exploit.
- Prediction: I’m taking Clippers in 6. The Nuggets didn’t look great in the first round, and even their wins felt more like Jamal Murray bailouts than legitimately good team play. But it’s important to remember that they’re still figuring out how to play with some new, weird rotations and lineups, and still working their best defender back into the team after an extended injury. At their best, the Nuggets were my clear third-best team in the West this season, and I don’t think they’re a great match-up for the Clippers. But fatigue is clearly an unpredictable factor, with the Nuggets gassed during Tuesday’s game 7–will they get run off the floor in Thursday’s game one, or ride the high from a huge first-round comeback and catch a slightly rusty Clippers team by surprise? Denver also has a bit of quit potential, despite coming back from 3-1 down against the Jazz. Jokic’s energy levels are inconsistent, and the Nuggets clearly and embarrassingly quit in game 3 against the Jazz when things got tough.
My guess is that the Nuggets don’t have the legs to put up much of a fight in game 1, and then game 2 is incredibly competitive. If the Nuggets make the series 1-1, it’ll be a long series. If the Clippers can come out on top and take a 2-0 series lead, I can see an exhausted Denver squad rolling over a bit and LAC getting out of the round more quickly.
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