What’s left to say? Montrezl Harrell and Doc Rivers continue to spot opponents victories in games the Clippers cannot afford to lose, and the Nuggets took advantage to tie the series 3-3.
The LA Clippers led the Denver Nuggets by 19 points, 68-49, with 10:10 left to play in the third quarter of game 6.
The Denver Nuggets won the game 111-98. A 62-30 close, an absolute rout. By the end, both teams had emptied their benches in garbage time.
Throughout the game, the Nuggets did a lot of things right. Nikola Jokic put up a tremendous effort in an elimination game, finishing with 34 points, 14 rebounds, and 7 assists on an efficient 13-22 from the field and 4-6 from deep. Jamal Murray had what might have been his most impactful game of the series, picking his spots against LAC’s pressure to finish with 21 points and 5 assists on a hyper-efficient 9-13 shooting. Murray also left the game after a collision at the rim with Paul George and clearly played through pain for much of Denver’s second-half run.
Sneaky contributions from the Nuggets’ bench kept them in the game: the never-quiet Michael Porter Jr. had 13 points and 7 rebounds, but even oft-maligned role players like Torrey Craig and Monte Morris contributed, combining for 17 points, 5 assists, 6 rebounds, and 0 turnovers on 7-11 from the field. That might feel small, but it’s huge–especially as LAC’s role players continue their uncharacteristic shooting struggles, particularly Landry Shamet who missed all three of his good looks from deep tonight and is now just 3-17 from beyond the arc in this series. The Clippers, of course, struggle to contain Jokic, but it’s particularly brutal to lose the 8 minutes where he rests and Mason Plumlee is on the court, and that happened tonight.
The Nuggets have also benefited from some luck. That’s not a critique, or an excuse, or a dismissal of all the things they do right, it’s just an analysis of the shooting data: Denver averages 35.9% from three as a team, and playing without one of their better and higher-volume shooters in Will Barton, they’re now at 44.4% and 48% in their last two comeback wins. Importantly, that includes shooting 7-9 from deep in the fourth quarter of game 5 and the fourth quarter of game 6. That efficiency is only possible because of a bunch of good stuff the Nuggets do, from staying engaged mentally to playing active defense to create looks in secondary transition to committing to their ball movement and trusting each other to find the open man. Even when you do all that stuff, shots falling at such a high rate for two straight fourth quarters requires a bit of good fortune, but the Nuggets are making their own luck.
The Clippers, too, are making their own luck. Montrezl Harrell and Doc Rivers tanked the Clippers vs the Nuggets. It’s unlucky to go cold from the field and it’s unlucky for your opponent to get hot. Basketball is a game of runs, and everyone seems to watch leads evaporate from time to time. But through a bizarre combination of flawed personnel, confusing gameplans, and indefensible lineup choices, Doc Rivers has positioned this Clippers team to be particularly vulnerable to allowing runs. The story of this game, just as much as Nikola Jokic’s great play, is Rivers once again throwing away a large lead by overplaying his unbelievably bad backup center, Montrezl Harrell.
In a first half that the Clippers won by 16, the team lost Harrell’s minutes by 4. In a second half that the Clippers lost by 29, the team lost Harrell’s minutes by 15.
Of course, that means that the Clippers also lost by a substantial margin when Trez was on the bench in the second half, which is true. But even when the team is bleeding, they bleed worse with Harrell, losing by more in the 8:30 that he was on the court than the 15:30 that he was off. This Nuggets team has proven that they are not going to quit, and for Rivers to give them a free pass for 8 minutes of the second half is inexcusable. The Clippers cannot score, defend, or rebound with Harrell on the floor: in this game, they had a 79.4 offensive rating and a 139.4 defensive rating with Trez on, compared to a 114.5 offensive rating and 101.6 defensive rating with him off. The team grabbed just 37.5% of available rebounds with him on the floor, compared to 52.5% with him off, and Harrell himself finished with just 1 rebound in 15 minutes.
It would not be so frustrating if Trez had simply had a bad game, but this has been the story of the playoffs for the Clippers. The team has a net rating of +17.6 whenever he is on the bench, and -11.4 when he is on the court, leaving him with the largest negative impact on the team by a mile. They grab 46.9% of available rebounds with him on the floor and 54% with him off. And while you constantly hunt for context in lineup data, especially when dealing with small sample sizes, Harrell’s impact is actually worse than the data suggests, not better: his best stint of the playoffs game in garbage time of game 4 vs Dallas, and the minutes where he shares the floor with the Clippers’ wing trio of Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Morris are enough to swing that lineup from a +11 net rating to a -19.6.
A lot of things happen in 48 minutes. Jokic was great, Murray fought, the Nuggets executed while the Clippers stagnated. LAC’s offense stagnated, as it did in the second half of game 5 and as it has over the course of the season. Rivers hasn’t installed much of a system and Leonard and George’s individual greatness sometimes results in strings of misses. The role players continue to shoot the ball incredibly poorly when the ball is kicked out to them, allowing Denver’s defense to collapse (LAC was 10-27 from deep tonight but 7-14 came from Kawhi and PG). Harrell’s struggles aside, Zubac has had back-to-back rough nights, failing to consistently finish inside on rolls, dump-offs, and offensive rebounds. Kawhi Leonard, for all his talent, needs to be better in closeout games. Just 25 points on 8-18 shooting isn’t enough production.
But through all of it, the game swung when Rivers opened Pandora’s box by putting Montrezl Harrell on the floor in the third quarter. Removing Zubac because he’s struggling defensively and inserting Harrell is like putting out a fire by squirting lighter fluid at it. It cost the Clippers both of the games they lost against the Dallas Mavericks, and it’s cost them two straight closeout games here against Denver. Rivers’ over-reliance on Harrell has resulted in Clippers losses against Dallas, and now the Nuggets. Rivers has now had a 3-1 lead in the second round with the Clippers twice in his tenure, and let the series slip to a game 7 both times. In 2015, the Clippers lost to the Houston Rockets.
If the Clippers lose again on Tuesday, Rivers shouldn’t be on the plane back to LA.