Shocking the world: Nuggets-Clippers series recap

Here’s my analysis of the Nuggets-Clippers series, which culminated in an exciting Game 7 finish.

Congratulations to the Denver Nuggets for coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series. Truly a gutsy effort by a great team.

For the record: I was VERY wrong in picking the Clippers to win the series. In a best-of-seven series, the better and more adaptive team wins — and the Nuggets rightfully take the crown here.

Disclaimer: I am not a Nuggets or Clippers fan, but I have watched the majority of the NBA Playoffs. Aside from some historical animosity towards the Griffin-Paul era Clippers, I was mostly impartial to the outcome.

Game 7: what happened?

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Clippers trailed by eight points. The sideline reporter asked Clippers coach Doc Rivers what his team needed to do to get back into the game.

“Make shots, get stops,” Rivers replied.

The Clippers neither made shots, nor got stops, for the rest of the game. The Nuggets held a double-digit lead and cruised to a Game 7 victory.

Although the Clippers had half the number of turnovers as the Nuggets — 10 to 20 — the issue wasn’t in taking care of the ball. It was in making shots.

The Clippers team shot 37.8% overall; 25.7% from three-point range. Contrast that with the Nuggets shooting 49.4% overall; 35.1% from three-point range. The contrast is startling.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, elite shot-makers, missed a lot of shots en route to getting blown out.

The eye test tells me that there were a lot of makeable shots. They just didn’t fall.

This Nuggets defense is a wonderland. It doesn’t look all that impressive, but they confuse you. Michael Malone gets his team to mix things up.

That extra split second you’re wondering about whether to penetrate further, or to pass? That might not lead to a turnover, but it does lead to indecision. Indecision is deadly, and the mind-killer.

Denver is incredibly strong with positional defense. They don’t gamble for steals; they just hold their ground. Millsap, Grant and Harris are studs. Jokic certainly held his own against Harrell, too.

Look, Leonard is a champion. He is a living human cyborg and the closest thing to Michael Jordan in 2020.

But Leonard wants to make the right play. It’s in his programming. The Nuggets know this and gave him the midrange shot — the shot least devastating to them.

If he made them, great. At least he wouldn’t draw fouls. The Nuggets can live with that.

On other occasions, the Nuggets double-teamed Leonard and made him pass out of traps.

Leonard, for all his strengths, isn’t going to force a lot of shots. He knows how to pick his spots. He is not going to wave off plays that he doesn’t like.

This is where a lot of the blame has to go to the coaching staff. The Nuggets gave Leonard different defensive looks. They blitzed him at times; played him straight up at other times. The Clippers failed to adequately adjust.

Let’s also talk about George for a moment — he absolutely wilted in crunch time. George had a lot of looks that would have turned around the Clippers’ fortunes in the fourth quarter, had he made his shots.

At times, it looked like George wanted to assert himself and impose his will on the game. But he just didn’t have it today, nor for most of the series.

I do wonder if George is still struggling with physical ailments, or if his mind remains in a dark place, as he admitted last round.

Credit the Nuggets’ defense, though. You don’t get George and Leonard to miss all those shots on their own. The Clippers had to chase the Nuggets players on the other side of the court, and this wears down their legs — gives them a little less juice on their jump shots.

The Clippers live and die by the balanced attack, which is another strange situation created by the coaching staff.

The supporting players like Harrell and Williams just failed to come up big today. In their defense, they’ve never been placed in situations of such magnitude before.

It is easy and convenient to say that the Clippers self-destructed. But give credit where credit is due — the Nuggets played some unbelievable basketball to earn the victory.

The “arrogance” vs. “nothing to lose” narrative

The media portrays the Clippers as “arrogant,” and the Nuggets as a happy-go-lucky carefree collection of players who have “nothing to lose.”

I call bullshit on this. In the heat of the moment, I doubt the Clippers feel any less urgency to win as the Nuggets do, or vice versa.

The reality is that the Clippers have never fully gelled all season. They have the firepower on paper, but management wanted to keep Leonard and George fresh for a deep playoff run.

What about their postseason lapses? This isn’t “arrogance” or “entitlement.” This is just an 80%, partly-formed chemistry.

As for the Nuggets, there is just as much pressure for them to win the series as the Clippers do. Especially when they’ve had a solid, stable core of players from season to season.

Fans forget that Denver was one of the top teams last season. Losing the series here would have meant that they underachieved for two seasons straight.

The Denver media is less harsh on them for underachieving, compared to larger-market teams. The players, however, understand the gravitas of the situation.

The narrative that Denver had their backs to the wall in three straight games — that this allowed them to “relax” and play great basketball — is somewhat true.

They realized that the Clippers had some type of Achilles’ Heel; a scab that they could keep scratching at. They could constantly annoy the beast and live another day.

They grew confident that no lead held by the Clippers was insurmountable, and responded accordingly.

Jamal Murray

Murray is Denver’s most important player, and it’s not close.

A lot of fans, even diehard ones, will point at Jokic instead. But the team lives and dies with Murray.

Murray singlehandedly bailed the Nuggets out of Round 1 when Jokic struggled — more on Jokic later.

The ball is in Murray’s hands, a lot. Due to his Mamba Mentality Irrational Confidence mindset, he always believes he will make the shot.

This is particularly remarkable when you consider how high his basketball IQ is, and how relatively un-athletic he is compared to that of his defenders.

Murray has an un-exceptional, average release speed on his jump shot, and his arms just aren’t super long by NBA standards.

But it doesn’t matter. He’s crafty and constantly applies pressure on the defense with his probing dribbles.

Murray has incredible situational awareness, and is stellar at using screens to hunt the right mismatch.

Example of Murray’s awareness: in Game 7, he relentlessly attacked Landry Shamet in the second quarter, when George sat with three fouls.

Murray made a couple of critical baskets in this period. This prevented the Clippers from pulling away by halftime, and was instrumental to the Nuggets’ surge to start the second half.

Murray’s midrange spin-cycle fadeaway J is a lethal weapon. It feels like a dicey 50-50 proposition when it leaves his hand. Yet somehow, it manages to go in more often than not.

I love that even when matched up against Leonard, George or Morris — defenders with real length — Murray never stops attacking. He doesn’t just pass the ball out to someone else.

He wants to be Kobe Bryant in the big moment. He wants to take big shots.

Nicola Jokic

There’s nothing bad I can write about Jokic in this series.

He’s efficient. His midrange shot-making is off the charts, and he did a surprisingly decent job in containing Harrell on the defensive end.

Kudos to him for making history today — earning a triple-double in three quarters is remarkable.

Jokic, unfortunately, has had to play himself into shape for several seasons counting.

My theory is that he struggled mightily against Gobert and the Jazz in Round 1 precisely because he had to play himself into shape.

The weight loss thing during the COVID break was a mirage. Being thinner doesn’t automatically make you a better basketball player.

In Round 1 and the beginning of Round 2, Jokic’s decision-making just looked…off.

He’s rounding into form now, at the right time, and this is what matters.

The Nuggets’ supporting cast

None of Murray or Jokic’s heroics matter were it not for the solid play by the entire squad.

It’s easy to follow the narrative that superstars win games, and that all you need are two offensive studs on the roster. But as the defeated Milwaukee Bucks will tell you, that’s not all there is to the game of basketball.

Let’s start with Gary Harris. Harris woke up in this series, and particularly in Games 6 and 7. He’d been struggling to hit the three ball all season, and turned it around in a big way.

Harris is crucial because he is absolutely needed on the floor. He’s a great defender and helps keep Clippers role players like Lou Williams at bay. They needed Harris at his best today, and he delivered.

Watching Paul Millsap play on offense is like listening to a podcast at 0.5x speed. He’s…so…slow. But he bailed them out of some tight situations, and he plays great defense.

Before Games 6 and 7, fans were counting Millsap out of the rotation. Now, he might be here to stay.

The Michael Porter, Jr. experiment has been interesting. His value remains questionable. If you get him to score 2 points, but then he immediately gives up 2 points on defense, 15 seconds later — is that really a net positive?

But it is what it is. MPJ’s been forced to play, and he’s mostly delivered. He’s been the most poised rookie in the playoffs not named Tyler Herro.

The silver lining is that he’s managed to stay healthy this entire season, and he’ll only continue to improve in the upcoming Lakers series.

The Clippers’ supporting cast

Let me say that the “play Zubac or play Harrell” situation is a false dichotomy. Both players needed to play in this series, and it’s not an either-or situation.

In a vacuum, Zubac is the ideal player with his defensive abilities. But the Clippers struggled to produce scoring, even with George and Leonard on the floor. Doc Rivers made the right call in giving the Harrell-Williams duo major minutes.

Harrell is a feast-or-famine option. He reminds me a lot of Kenneth Faried v2.0. When he is not scoring, his value approaches zero. He could not tangibly affect Jokic at all on the defensive end. But the Clippers had nothing better to throw out there on the court.

At this point I’m prepared to call Pat Beverley overrated. He brings something on defense, but his abilities have regressed over the years due to age plus injuries.

He doesn’t challenge the Nuggets’ defense, and he hasn’t had many opportunities in this series to simply be a reliable spot-up three point threat.

The Clippers played eight players in Game 7, with Shamet effectively out of the game after rolling his ankle.

They’ve always lacked depth, even in the pre-Ballmer years, and that’s troubling.

What’s next?

The Lakers-Nuggets series will be fun to watch. I think the Lakers have too much firepower, not to mention the best player on the planet. I predict Lakers in six.

I doubt Doc Rivers will be fired. It’s a bad situation to blow a 3-1 series lead, but Rivers is the closest thing to a tenured NBA coach not named Gregg Popovich.

Ballmer will have to consult with Leonard and George to see what happens next. It all depends on what things the stars whisper in his ear. I suspect they’ll not be too harsh on Doc.




Add yours →

  1. Woh James it’s quite an in-depth analysis of the series! Thanks for summing this up and I have yet to learn to read the game like you do!


  2. Great read! Loved the 0.5x speed Millsap reference and agree with a lot of your points. But where would the fun be without some disagreement? I don’t agree that the Clippers being arrogant was just something the media came up with. Back from Pat Bev and PG talked shit to Dame to Morris “tough guying” 21 yr old Doncic, I just felt like they talked a lot of shit for guys that haven’t won anything. OK, maybe they do that to hype themselves up, but what really stuck out to me was when PG said after game 6 loss that there was no pressure on them. Like seriously? On the brink of completing a classic Clipper choke job, you’re going to talk about how you guys are the favorites and are in the driver seat? (loved to see CJ and Dame go at them on Twitter after the loss).
    And Harrell was all famine and shouldnt have gotten that much play in game 7. Not saying it would have changed the outcome, but they had no answer for Jokic, and doubling a 7 ft passer like that opened up offense for all the other Nuggets and they got killed on the boards.


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