After failing to hold on to their lead and close out the Denver Nuggets in 5 games, the LA Clippers now face a crucial game 6 with hopes of advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. Win, and the first- and second-round losses will be quickly forgotten. Lose, and risk going home in an anything-can-happen game 7 on Tuesday.
Where: Disneyworld, Orlando, Florida
When: 10:00 AM Pacific Time
How to watch: ESPN
LA Clippers: Patrick Beverley – Paul George – Kawhi Leonard – Marcus Morris – Ivica Zubac
Denver Nuggets: Jamal Murray – Gary Harris – Jerami Grant – Paul Millsap – Nikola Jokic
DEN: Will Barton OUT, Vlatko Cancar OUT
- Clippers Mock Draft Roundup: Late September
- Clippers 2020 Exit Interview: Johnathan Motley
- Clippers 2020 Exit Interview: Patrick Patterson
- Clippers’ 2020 Exit Interview: Marcus Morris
- Clippers’ 2020 Exit Interview: Joakim Noah
The big picture
Everywhere I look, I see ghosts of Clippers past.
I know this is a different team, in a different series, led by different stars. Kawhi Leonard has made the conference finals more times in his career than he’s missed them. Hell, when he’s been healthy, his teams are 17-4 in playoff series. When Chris Paul came to the Clippers, he was 1-3 in four career playoff series, and during his six-year tenure in LA the team went 3-6 in their 9 series.
There isn’t a single player on the roster who was here in 2015 when the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead in the second round to the Houston Rockets. They’re aware of it–and aware of the team’s historic losing streak when a Conference Finals berth is on the line–but I don’t think it means very much to them. Why would Kawhi Leonard be bothered about the Clippers’ 2015 loss when he wasn’t on the team and has won a title since then? Why would anyone in the organization feel anguish at mention of the team’s 2006 loss to the Suns when practically every significant figure in the organization has arrived since then?
But when you’ve been following this team through thick and thin, like we have, it’s different. The ghosts are everywhere, from unlikely perpetrator Paul Millsap awakening to score 14 third-quarter points to a fourth-quarter three-point barrage highlighted by Jamal Murray banking in a deep, contested shot. Every fourth quarter turnover, every rushed shot from a nervous role player, every defensive breakdown from an “instant offense” bench player seeps into Clipper history, writing new pages in the sporting world’s most depressing book. I wish the author would get some new material instead of repeating the same tired storylines.
All of a sudden, the Denver Nuggets’ season is a success–something that didn’t seem likely when they were down 3-1 to the underdog Utah Jazz in the first round a couple of weeks ago. But their string of big wins to come back in that series was probably even more fulfilling than a run-of-the-mill series win would have been, as the Nuggets had to dig deep, battle through adversity, and get iconic breakout performances from still-young lead guard Jamal Murray. Needing 7 games and facing a 3-1 deficit was short of expectations for the Nuggets in that series, but the ultimate result was an undeniable feel-good win.
And now, with their game 5 comeback against the Clippers in the second round, even elimination in game 6 would be somewhat of a feel-good loss for Denver. Locked on Nuggets host and DNVR Nuggets reporter Adam Mares said after game 5 that taking 2 games off of the Clippers in the second round was the equivalent of Denver hitting par for the season: play well, get a good seed, win a series, and provide a legitimate challenge to one of the LA teams in the second round.
If the Nuggets are sent home Sunday, they can find pride in their performances and hope that only moderate adjustments–Will Barton’s return to health, a year of growth for Michael Porter Jr., a move or two around the edges–give them a legitimate chance to run this thing back and take another swing in the second round next year. Falling short, either in the first round or via a gentleman’s sweep against LA, would have forced the Nuggets to spend the off-season questioning if this core was capable of competing or if a more drastic move was needed. But outside of Denver’s game 1 fatigue loss, it feels fair to say that each team has outplayed the other in two of the last four games, with LAC stealing game 3 with a late comeback and Denver doing the same in game 5.
The significance of the Nuggets hitting par for their long-term team-building won’t mean much to the players in the locker room Sunday, though. They believe they can beat the Clippers, and why wouldn’t they? They have twice. Plus, as Nikola Jokic has said during this playoff run, Denver is at their best with their backs against the wall: they play more freely, with nothing to lose. Where the Nuggets were a bit timid in an elimination game 5 Friday, they’ll be playing with house money Sunday morning.
- Montrezl Harrell: There’s little doubt: Harrell has been the worst Clipper this playoffs, on both offense and defense, but a notable margin. They’ve routinely been killed when was on the floor, losing his 202 playoff minutes by 41 points–and that number is offset by him stat-padding in garbage time. His only two positive games have been the team’s 43-point win over Dallas in game 5 (+34) and their 23-point win over Denver in game 1 (+7). In LA’s other 9 playoff games, they’ve lost 158 minutes with Harrell on the floor by 82 points. Essentially every lineup Trez touches becomes a nightmare: even when he plays in tandem with George, Leonard, and Morris, the quartet has a net rating of -16.3. In combinations that do not include Harrell, that trio has a net rating of +13.5.
Harrell has had moderate success (survival is a better word) in this series against Nuggets backup Mason Plumlee, who is nowhere near the offensive weapon or creator that starter Nikola Jokic is. The Clippers have won 48 Trez vs Plumlee minutes by 9 points, primarily thanks to Denver’s putrid offense when Jokic is off the floor. While you’d be right to say that you’d like to run the score up by more than that with Jokic off the floor, at least LAC is surviving those minutes. They aren’t surviving then Harrell shares the floor with Jokic.
It was particularly salient in game 5, where the two shared the court for just 4:20 in the second half, and the Nuggets went +18 in that stretch–the result of Harrell’s selfish offensive play and lazy defensive play spiraling into each other.
- Guarding Jokic: Denver’s best player in this series has certainly been Nikola Jokic, which is perhaps not surprising as he’s their best player and likely the best big man in the NBA. Nobody in the league is a Jokic stopper, just like nobody is a Kawhi stopper–just look at Jokic’s lines against Rudy Gobert in the first round. The Clippers are going to lose the center matchup every time they play Denver for probably the next decade. If they want to win games, including Sunday’s game 6, the key will be keeping the margin of defeat at center small enough that they can overcome it elsewhere.
Ivica Zubac has done that in this series. Against Zubac, Jokic pretty much gets whatever he wants. He gets to his spots on the floor, he scores with efficiency. When the two share the floor, Jokic is shooting 25 times per 100 possessions, a slight uptick from his regular-season numbers, and making 48% of his field goal attempts, a slight downtick. While Zubac hasn’t been great against Jokic, he’s been competent, and because the Clippers seem to lack a competent alternative, Doc Rivers simply needs to play Zu against Jokic as much as possible.
When it’s not possible, either due to foul trouble or Zubac’s fatigue (Jokic is playing 40+ minutes a game), the answer simply can’t be Montrezl Harrell. Against Zubac, Jokic has 73 points in 124 minutes while shooting 48.4% from the field. Against Harrell, it’s 42 points in 45 minutes on 64% from the field. When both are off (meaning either Marcus Morris or JaMychal Green is Jokic’s primary defender), the sample size is inconclusive: 6 points in 15 minutes on 3-8 shooting. Jokic is productive vs Zubac but superhuman when Zu is off the floor–LAC needs to find a different plan for any non-Zu Jokic minutes or they’ll continue to throw away 44 minutes of hard work with 4 miserable minutes.
- Regression: The playoffs are a mess of small sample sizes, and it can be really hard to know what’s real and what’s an aberration. As this series concludes, whether there’s 1 or 2 games left, look for a few things to reach more normal levels, like: Marcus Morris 3pt shooting (52% on the series), Jerami Grant’s 3pt shooting (25% on the series), Lou Williams’ 3pt shooting (10% on the series), Landry Shamet’s 3pt shooting (21% on the series), and Jamal Murray’s scoring (37.6% FG). There’s no guarantee that any or all of these things will adjust over the next 48-96 minutes–Murray’s struggles are the result of the Clippers’ defense systemically smothering him and leaving others open, while Grant’s struggles are in spite of those open looks. Just as Grant finding his shot would punish the Clippers’ aggressive focus on Denver’s stars and open up the Nuggets offense, Morris hitting a cold spell could tank LAC’s offense by not punishing Denver for over-helping on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, or the Clippers’ bench guards getting hot for a quarter could swing the game.
- Game Thread: As with every game, Clippers fans will be congregating in the comments of this preview during the game to chat live as the action unfolds. Register for a free account and join the conversation!
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