Far from dominant in their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks, the Clippers head into the conference semifinals still searching for the consistency and continuity of a team heralded as a championship favorite. The talent and depth is undeniable. But the Clippers, save for six dominant quarters in the six games against the Mavericks, simply haven’t looked like the juggernaut they’re supposed to be.
Reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard was steady and unguardable. But Paul George went through an ugly, three-game funk in the middle of the series and that dynamic bench duo of Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams didn’t have the impact forecasted by award-worthy regular seasons. Doc Rivers is coaching the situation and circumstances in the bubble as much as he is the Clippers, not to mention these great expectations for the first time in franchise history.
If the Clippers thought Luka Doncic was a handful, wait until they get a dose of the new and improved bubble version of Jamal Murray, provided he’s healthy. The Nuggets rode Murray's flame-thrower routine to a dramatic Game 7 win over the Utah Jazz in the first round; a knee to his left quad in the first half of Game 7 is the only thing that slowed him down. The Nuggets, however, are far from a one-man show. Murray might have been the overall MVP of the first round, but this Nuggets team is built around the versatility of its All-NBA big man Nikola Jokic, who found a way to lift his team in Game. With he and Murray both in a groove, Nuggets coach Mike Malone has a number of options to use in matchups against the Clippers. He has arguably the deepest and most balanced roster in the league outside of the Clippers. They've experienced three straight Game 7s and coming back from a 3-1 deficit to get back to the conference semifinals for the second straight season.
Three Things to watch
1. Has Paul George put his bubble demons to rest after a strong finish against the Mavericks? George admitted that his three-game tailspin in the middle of the first-round series against Dallas was more mental fatigue, the bubble at work, than anything physically wrong with his game. That won’t ease the mind of Doc Rivers, who also admitted that he underestimated the toll the unique circumstances might have on his players. Now that they’ve gotten a handle on it, George is free to get back to his All-Star ways. If the Clippers are serious about winning a championship, it’s a must.
2. Is the Jamal Murray experience built to last? Murray is legit. He’s a crafty operator capable of scoring at all three levels. And when his confidence is soaring the way it did in that first round series against the Jazz, a stout defensive team that simply had no answer for him, he takes the Nuggets to another level. Murray said he gained 12 pounds of muscle during the shutdown and showed up for the restart using each and every new ounce. He’ll need it against a Clippers team that presents a much stiffer individual defensive challenge with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and others available for duty. He’ll only have a day to get that sore quad in shape for the biggest series of his career.
3. Are the Clippers locked in and focused on the Nuggets or peeking ahead to a potential conference final showdown against the Lakers? The first-round scare from Dallas should have extinguished any fat-cat syndrome that might have set in for the Clippers during the restart. Sure, the battle with the Lakers was the talk of Tinseltown (and the rest of the basketball universe) from the moment Kawhi Leonard and Paul George became Clippers. But there are no guarantees in the most unpredictable season in NBA history. The Clippers know they have to focus on the business at hand before worrying about anything else.
The number to know
1.20 -- Denver and Utah scored 1.14 and 1.13 points per possession on pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions in their epic first-round series, according to Synergy play-type tracking. Those marks were both well above the best rate for any team in the regular season (Portland's 0.99), but they were below the mark of the Clippers, who's ball-handlers scored 1.20 points per possession on pick-and-rolls in their first-round series against Dallas.
The Clippers don't have one player who's going to handle the load as much as Donovan Mitchell or the Nuggets' own Jamal Murray. But the two players who've scored most efficiently on at least five ball-handler possessions per game in these playoffs are Lou Williams (1.43 points per possession) and Kawhi Leonard (1.42), who are a combined 37-for-63 (59%) on pull-up 2-pointers, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
The Clips also have a couple of capable roll men (Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell), and they rank second in the playoffs in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage. So the Nuggets will have some more difficult decisions to make when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll. In the regular season, the Clippers had two of the six most efficient games (including a seeding-game win in which Leonard and Williams combined to shoot 10-for-13 on non-restricted-area 2s) against Denver.
-- John Schuhmann
The Nuggets are playing with the sort of freedom that’s rare in the playoffs for a No. 3 seed that survives the scare from the Jazz in the first round. Rallying from that 3-1 deficit, just the 12th team in league history to do it, won’t raise the expectations for them now, not with a heavily favored Clippers team rested and waiting on them. Doc Rivers has had the chance to get his crew refocused on taking all of the necessary steps toward competing for the championship they believe is in their future. With his roster healthier and Kawhi Leonard in his full cyborg mode after the challenge from the Mavericks, the Clippers will be on the hunt for an early knockout of a Nuggets team that, talented as they are, don’t measure up to the Clippers on paper. The Nuggets were a fantastic story in the first round. They’ll need to find another gear to make the conference semifinals as compelling. Clippers in 5.
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