By Daniel Paiz
So you missed the best series of the first round of these NBA Playoffs; well have no fear, welcome to the Mile High Bubble Redux. The Los Angeles Clippers are certainly not the Utah Jazz. To be fair, that’s no knock on the resilient Jazz ensemble that nearly punched their own ticket to the second round on the hopes and dreams of a slightly off Mike Conley shot. A big difference between Denver’s opponents are their stars and their depth. But before anyone gushes over the Clippers (spoiler alert: I won’t), it’s important to find the keys to victory for each team before their Game 1 tip-off.
Welcome back to the Mile High Bubble
There are a lot of things to learn about the Clippers in a small amount of time. One important factor to remember is that, while outmatched on paper, Denver has earned a resolve LA hasn’t had to yet. Remember, momentum isn’t always accounted for.
The guys expected to steal the show
National media will largely be enamored with one of the NBA’s darlings, Kawhi Leonard (35.8 ppg vs. Dallas) . It’s justifiable, the guy is dangerous in every aspect of the game. What makes Leonard tough to play against is how multifaceted he and the Clippers are in general. However, one of their poisons is the same one Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray utilize: the high screen pick and roll.
Should Denver force LA to go to the Ivica Zubac-Leonard high screen up top, Jokic will have to once again figure out how to defend that. It seems Zubac is more mobile in this setup than Montrezl Harrell. Both guys are a problem due to the different skill sets each have. The two-way play of Leonard and Paul George (18.5 ppg vs. Dallas) will be the focus of many, but there’s an area the Clippers are lacking.
Jamal Murray had a historic performance in the Nuggets’ seven game series against Utah. He set a team-record for most points in a playoff game (50) and in Games 4, 5, an 6 scored 142 points to get Denver to a Game 7. Whether the annoying Pat Beverley or the efficient Landry Shamet starts at point for LA, both will have their hands full. Sure, it’s likely that Leonard, George, and Beverley/Shamet will be the guys thrown at Murray. Yes, they’re also better defenders than Donovan Mitchell and Utah were. But remember, Denver has something LA will have to figure out as well: point center Nikola Jokic.
Role players are everything
Gary Harris and Jerami Grant are the two guys I immediately think about for Denver. Harris will pressure Leonard and George all series. Grant has the size and two-way capabilities to also make an impact. Add in Monte Morris running the show at times to give Murray a rest or an off the ball situation, and Denver has some options. Mason Plumlee’s effort and guidance for Michael Porter Jr. will also be very important. Plumlee and Porter Jr. will be key to giving Denver a fighting chance.
The Clippers are strangely just a bench team with Leonard and George running the show. In their Game 5 154-111 drubbing of Dallas, six Clippers scored in double digits. Harrell had 19, Marcus Morris had 12, and Reggie Jackson and Shamet each added 11. Besides Leonard nobody else played 30 minutes; their bench might just rival the depth Denver keeps getting kudos for. They have guys who can chip in just enough buckets to force Denver to play honest defense and not only focus on Leonard and George.
Coaching & Intangibles
Mike Malone has been criticized for not making the right adjustments. While it did take until Game 4 to figure out that Grant and Morris needed to replace Porter Jr. and Torrey Craig in the starting lineup, it contributed to the turnaround. This will have to be a constant in this series versus LA. Figuring out which lineup is the most effective will be difficult because of how swiss army knife the Clippers are.
Doc Rivers knows that’s his biggest strength. I’m not sure he’s had another team where he can plug in different guys for different situations like this before. Rivers’ main issues are not toying with the lineup too much, and motivating Paul George to show up. If only every NBA coach could be so lucky to have these problems.
Again, here is where I think the national media might be underestimating Denver. This plug-and-play team is going to be tough to beat, but momentum isn’t considered enough in the pros. Sure the Clippers are going to be well rested. The Nuggets will be reeling a bit after an exhilarating rally to come back from a 3-1 deficit. But they’re also well-equipped to be the underdogs here.
That realization of consistent defensive effort and taking the game as it comes. Realizing that these habits need to be continuous. Leonard will likely have that mindset because he appears to be a basketball Zen master Phil Jackson would be proud to know. But Denver has to take a similar approach in terms of taking each sequence as it comes.
There will be runs LA makes that Denver has to prepare for. A vital stat for Denver is to keep LA from scoring 30 plus a quarter in the second half. The Nuggets have pulled games out when hunkering down defensively in the third quarter; they’ve been ran off the court when they haven’t. The old cliché rings especially true for Denver: defense wins you ballgames.
Maybe I’m an optimist. Call me someone who thinks that while this Clippers team is formidable, it isn’t unbeatable. It will take Jokic playing smart ball on both ends of the court. The role players will have to hit their shots when The Joker is double-teamed and swarmed since he’s the Clippers’ biggest weakness. Jamal Murray will need to show everyone again that he’s officially arrived, despite Leonard stealing the spotlight. But it doesn’t seem like a team that rallied down from 3-1 should be lacking in mental fortitude.
The Denver Nuggets will win this series the only way they know how: in a thrillingly exhaustive series that goes their way in Game 7. Nuggets in 7.