At its best, Game 7 is a lie-detector test. Get that deep in a playoff series, and all the artifice, the sizzle, the stories that a franchise might tell itself will melt away. When every possession might be the difference between elimination and survival, all that’s left is the truth. Which players want the ball and which ones run from it? Which defenders stand up to scrutiny and which ones fold under questioning? And which coaches know their personnel (and yours) well enough to push the right buttons and which ones don’t?
It’s fitting, then, that the second-round series between the Clippers and Nuggets wound up going the distance in search of clarity. Who better to enter the proving ground of a Game 7 than L.A. and Denver: a ready-made juggernaut that rarely looked as perfect in practice as it did on paper (and that was before blowing a pair of huge second-half leads with a chance to punch its conference finals ticket), and a slow-simmering almost-contender with the postseason’s leakiest remaining defense that seems to need the heat of a 15-point second-half deficit to gets its collective ass in gear?
“We don’t want to be in that spot,” Nuggets star Nikola Jokic told reporters after Game 6. “But it seems like we are good in that spot.”
Through four games, it looked like the series had revealed its participants’ identities. After finishing off a 96-85 win in Game 4 to take a 3-1 lead, the Clippers seemed inevitable—a team capable of authoring stretches of smothering defense and overwhelming offense, with Kawhi Leonard making a convincing case as the best player in the bubble. The Nuggets, meanwhile, with high-scoring guard Jamal Murray unable to shake L.A.’s excellent perimeter defenders, seemed to lack sufficient firepower against such a formidable opponent. But after a pair of nearly unbelievable performances in which Denver blitzed Doc Rivers’s club to outscore the Clippers a combined 131-84 after halftime in games 5 and 6, the definitions seem different. Now, Denver’s the swaggering offensive monster, impervious to the pressures of the moment and simply having too much fun to lie down; now, the Clippers are the team with too much history and too little continuity, too few bankable rotation options and too many question marks to inspire the sort of confidence that’s bursting forth from every Nugget.
For all we didn’t know about the Clippers heading into the postseason—reminder: Leonard and Paul George appeared together in only 37 of L.A.’s 72 games, and the Clips’ current starting five logged just 147 regular-season minutes—one thing we did know is that they were deep, with Sixth Man of the Year winners Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell anchoring a second unit that could run opponents’ reserves off the floor. That supposed strength has become a vulnerability in this series, though, and especially lately. Clippers not named Leonard or George scored just 22 points in the third and fourth quarters of games 5 and 6, shooting 10-for-37 as a group and 2-for-16 from long distance—a jaw-dropping disappearance at the absolute worst possible time.
While Williams has worked hard defensively, the Nuggets have found success targeting him in the pick-and-roll; it was one of the foundational elements in the fourth-quarter run that blew L.A.’s doors off in Game 6. He hasn’t been able to make the Nuggets pay on the other end, averaging just 10.5 points per game in Round 2 and making only three of his 23 3-point tries (13 percent) to continue a brutal run of bricklaying that has persisted ever since he got back into the bubble. As rough as LouWill’s been, though, his pick-and-roll partner has struggled even more.
To some degree, Harrell’s woes have been understandable; after exiting the bubble in mid-July for a family emergency, he missed the entire seeding-game stage, meaning the first game action he’d seen since the season’s suspension came in Game 1 of the playoffs against Dallas, more than five months after everything shut down. “You know, I am going to just throw him in there,” Rivers told reporters before Harrell’s return. “As you know, he’s earned that right. The challenge will be just how ready he is.” The answer: not very. Harrell’s averaging 9.7 points in 18.1 minutes per game in the playoffs, about half his regular-season production; he’s also been several steps slow on the defensive end, and that’s really caught up to him against Jokic.
As my Ringer colleague Jonathan Tjarks noted Monday, Rivers’s insistence on sticking with Harrell against Jokic has been absolutely poisonous for L.A.: The Nuggets have outscored the Clippers by 34 points in the 53 minutes during which Jokic and Harrell have shared the court, with Jokic scoring 50 points in those 53 minutes on 65.5 percent shooting. The bulk of that damage has come directly on Harrell’s head: According to NBA.com’s matchup data, Jokic has made 12 of 17 attempts (70.6 percent) with Harrell as his primary defender in this series. He has busted up the newly minted Sixth Man of the Year in just about every way possible—punishing Harrell’s drop pick-and-roll coverage by popping to the perimeter for 3s, using his 5-inch height advantage to play Pop-a-Shot over the top when Harrell plays a step off, pivoting baseline for layups when Harrell tries to body him in the post, flipping in floaters, getting to the line, you name it:
If Harrell and Williams have become liabilities on both ends of the floor ... and Patrick Beverley’s continually battling foul trouble in his still-limited minutes ... and Landry Shamet’s shooting more like J.J. Hickson than JJ Redick (6-for-23 from the floor, 3-for-17 from 3 in this series) ... and buyout-market addition Reggie Jackson’s essentially unplayable defensively … then suddenly the Clippers’ vaunted depth doesn’t look so impressive. Especially not when Denver’s getting boosts from previously struggling sources who’ve found ways to contribute when the Clippers have sold out to shut down their top two stars.
“Any time they put two on Nikola, they put two on Jamal, that means there’s an open man somewhere,” Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said. “And the only way you’re going to get them out of double-teaming is if somebody else steps up and makes a play.”
The Nuggets believe that somebody’s going to step up, after watching Paul Millsap come through with a huge 14-point third quarter in Game 5, Gary Harris pour in 12 points and a pair of triples in the second half of Game 6, and rookie Michael Porter Jr.—whose defensive activity has taken a dramatic step forward with the season on the line—follow up his clutch fourth quarter from Game 5 with another big late 3 in Game 6. (Which is to say: When precocious neophyte Porter said after Game 4 that “to beat [the Clippers], we gotta get more players involved, we gotta move the ball a little bit better” … well, the young man had a point.) They believe in Murray, who bounced back from getting cleaned out by George to chip in 11 points and a pair of assists during Denver’s second-half deluge, and who has turned the ball over twice in 81 minutes in the past two games while being defended by the Cerberus of George, Beverley, and Leonard. Denver has now staved off elimination five times in this postseason alone, coming back from 3-1 down in the opening round to knock off Utah and now sitting one win away from doing it again.
What a comeback— NBA TV (@NBATV) September 13, 2020
Denver forces a Game 7 behind Jokic’s 34 points! pic.twitter.com/ky0JtoXYWG
The Nuggets believe that Jokic can and will carry them when it counts. After exploding for 34-14-7 in Game 6, the Serbian center’s now averaging 27.8 points on 55/55/83 shooting splits to go with 10.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists in those five elimination games; there is a case to be made that he, not Leonard, has been the best player in this series thus far. If Jokic does it again on Tuesday—already the fourth Game 7 of his young postseason career, with averages of 26.7 points, 14 rebounds, and 5.3 assists in the first three—and outduels the reigning Finals MVP to lift Denver to its first conference finals appearance in 11 years, he’ll ascend to a new level in the NBA’s firmament, and perhaps stamp the Nuggets as the sort of real-deal title threat so few have been willing to consider them.
“We find it funny that the narrative is that the Nuggets are cute,” Malone told reporters after Game 6. “We were second in the West last year. We were one possession away from going to the Western Conference finals. Most of this year [we] were the no. 2 seed in the West. I think it comes down to a tremendous amount of belief and confidence in who we are, what we are about, and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Denver has earned that belief and confidence through years spent striving in unison. The Clippers, on the other hand, came together in one fell swoop last July, have only intermittently had their Real Team together, and have yet to go through the fire of a Game 7 together. Leonard’s been there himself, of course. Four times, in fact, including a few all-timers and one of the most memorable shots in NBA playoff history.
We know what Kawhi’s about on this stage; for the Clippers as a whole, though, we’re about to learn. Either they finally show up as the 48-minute ass-kicker so many thought they could be and relegate Denver to second-tier also-ran status, or they become the second supposed A-list squad in a week to be eliminated after the exposure of its fatal flaw—in this case, a maddening inability to sustain its top form—and watch Jokic and Murray steal their spot in the sun. One way or the other, we find out Tuesday night who these teams really are. Nowhere to run to; nowhere to hide.