The Clippers’ series against the Nuggets is knotted up at one game apiece, but through 96 minutes, it’s been tough to find any major takeaways that might hold through across the duration of the series.
After Game 1, Clippers’ fans were riding high. The Clippers crushed the Nuggets 120-97, and the score was honestly closer than the game had been. After an even first quarter, the Clippers took control, and imposed their will in almost every way. They did a fantastic job defending the Nuggets’ two best players, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. On offense, they moved the ball around well (23 assists) without giving it away much (14 turnovers). And, most importantly, they just made their shots. The Clippers shot an incredible 57% from the field in Game 1, also hitting their threes at 41.7% and their free throws at 82.4%. It was a dominant display, especially by Kawhi Leonard, who looked unstoppable. On the other end, the Nuggets’ offense ran cold, especially from deep (25%) and from the line (66.7%).
In game 2, the script flipped. The Nuggets came out on fire while the Clippers stumbled, swiftly gaining a double-digit lead which they pushed to nearly 20 by the end of the first quarter. While the Clippers fought valiantly the rest of the game, they were never able to close the deficit to less than five, and the outcome was never really in doubt. In almost every facet of the game, the role reversal was absolute. The Clippers struggled shooting, hitting just over 40% of their shots from the field while connecting on a mere nine out of 32 threes (28.1%). They even flailed at the line, making just 69% (nice) of their free shot attempts. Meanwhile, the Nuggets sharpened up, hitting 45.1% of their shots and 37.5% of their threes.
There is plenty to talk about regarding the ins and outs of the defensive coverages both teams employed. But that is not really the point. Basketball is a simple game, and very frequently is dominated by the simple input of whether a team is hot or cold on a given night. In Game 1, the Clippers were hot, and the Nuggets were frigid. In Game 2, it was the Nuggets who scorched the nets, and the Clippers who were unable to buy a bucket. While there were strategic decisions in both games that effected the outcome, the difference in each really comes down to shotmaking.
This is great news for the Clippers, given that they mostly hung around in Game 2 despite their poor shooting while the Nuggets got utterly blown out in Game 1. The Clippers’ defense notably tightened in the second half of Game 2, and while the Nuggets were able to score enough points to win, they were helped by the Clippers’ poor shooting too. The Nuggets played great defense yesterday, but Kawhi Leonard is not going to go 4-17 again on the shots he was taking yesterday, no matter how superb the coverage. The same goes for Lou Williams, who was effective overall, but 0-6 from three. Those guys will hit shots at a higher rate, and when they do, defense won’t matter. If the Clippers are not able to hit shots against the Nuggets, they are probably going to lose the series even if they play well in every other facet. Such is basketball.
All this is to say that almost everything went right for the Clippers in Game 1. They were hot, the Nuggets were not, and their best player was absolutely on fire. In Game 2, almost everything went wrong, with cold shooting, lots of turnovers (17), an extremely poor Kawhi Leonard performance, and a lethargic defensive start dooming the Clippers from the jump. In Game 2, just about everything went the Nuggets’ way, with hot shooting, great star performances, and (for them) extraordinary defense. In essence, both Games 1 and 2 were perfect storms for each team.
It’s very unlikely that the series will continue like this, with such vast differences in play on a game by game basis. The first two games can’t be entirely written off, but it’s fair to think that neither the Nuggets nor Clippers will shoot as badly as they did in Games 1 or 2 respectively. Perhaps in Game 3, both teams will play excellently and shoot the ball well. Maybe in Game 5, both teams are cold the entire night and sloppy with the ball in their hands. Either way, those types of contests will inform us much more about the outcome of the series than the first two games.
The series is now a best of five, with plenty of basketball still to play. The Nuggets punched the Clippers in the mouth to start Game 2, and while the Clippers battled back, that swift jab effectively took them out. Game 3 will be a completely fresh game, and the Clippers should be looking to take it to the Nuggets to regain the edge in the series. With some better shooting from the basketball gods, and more energy to start, they should be in a fairly good spot to do so.