The Los Angeles Clippers would have been the most avid viewers of the NBA Playoffs First Round Game 7 clash between the Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz. The winner of that all-important game would be the Clippers’ next opponents in the Western Conference Semi-finals. The Nuggets held on for a tight 80-78 victory and they set up a date with the Clippers in the next phase.
Setting the scene
This is one of the most eagerly anticipated matchups in the NBA as the Clippers ended the regular season in second place in the West with the Nuggets right behind them in third. Although they ended the season in close quarters the teams are on opposite ends of the experience scale. The Clippers have a championship winning coach on the side-lines in Doc Rivers who has been at the helm in LA since 2013. They might not have been together as a team for a long time with many of the star players, namely Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, having only joined the franchise at the beginning of the season, but the spine of this team have been Clippers for a few years. Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell have been playing for Doc Rivers for a while now.
The Clips have the richest team owner in American sports in Steve Balmer, who made his fortune with Microsoft and so they have been able to bring in heaps of help as they chase a championship. On the other side of the coin, you have a young Denver Nuggets team who are growing by the game. Denver is a smaller market than Los Angeles so they haven’t been able to attract star players they way ‘Tinseltown’ can.
The stand out players on the roster are All-Star centre Nikola Jokic who is 25 and Jamal Murray who is 23. They have excellent support in shooting guard Garry Harris, who is also 25, Jerami Grant who is 26 and a handful of even younger players who have impressed, such as rookie Bol Bol and lanky small forward Michael Porter Jr in only his second season in the NBA, his first with on-court action after a long injury layoff. The 35-year-old power forward Paul Millsap is the veteran of this bunch. This is a case of youth versus experience.
The case for the Clippers
The Clippers are the more fancied team in this showdown, and rightly so when you look at the players they can call on to win them games. Leonard is a spectacular leader for this team, having won two championships with San Antonio and Toronto respectively, he knows what it takes to raise his game in the high-pressure situations. George has long been touted as one of the best two-way players in the business with a high work rate and efficiency on both offence and defence. Williams has been one of the most prolific scorers and contributors off the bench in NBA history having won the Sixth Man of the Year award three times.
The doggedness and tenacity of contributors like Harrell, Beverley, Marcus Morris, JaMychal Green, Reggie Jackson can’t be understated. All of these players have been solid at the various teams they were in before joining the ‘Rivers Revolution’ this season. All of them known for their ability to deliver when the going gets tough and it has been tough already. With the defensive skills that they all have individually, it was surprising to see the team struggle against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in the previous round. They survived that scare and their fans will hope that the true Clippers show up in the semis against the Nuggets.
The only real issues they have been at the centre position where Harrell has been potent this term but he has also blown hot and cold. Ivica Zubac has garnered many minutes and impressed with his displays but he comes up against a super-talented Nikola Jokic and could be found wanting. The defence will need to work better as a unit, especially in transition from offence to defence as they will need way more from George, who has struggled in the bubble in Orlando. They have firepower, a coach who has done it all and star players to call on and that is why so many are tipping them to shine as they go deeper into the playoffs.
The case for the Nuggets
The Nuggets might not have the playing experience, in terms of longevity, that the Clippers have but in recent years they have played in a number of very tough and close postseason skirmishes. Coach Michael Malone has been in charge in Denver since 2015 and he’s built a quick and creative team. Last season alone they were in two series that went to Game 7. They beat the San Antonio Spurs in seven in the First Round but then lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 in the Conference Semis. Many of the players on this roster took part in that run and will know how to win the big games and how much defeat stings.
The fact that the Nuggets came back to oust the Jazz after having trailed 3-1 in their First Round series this season will be evidence enough that they can dig deep. It takes a monumental effort to come back when you’ve put yourself in a hole in a series. Jamal Murray was the spark that lit the comeback run and his three games of 50 or more points in a row was something incredibly special. Against the Clippers, Murray will need his partner in crime Jokic to come to the party. The burly 7-foot Serbian has a silky scoring touch close to the bucket and an accurate 3-pointer, he also passes the ball with eagle-eyed vision. If Jokic plays at the peak of his powers there are few teams who can stop him.
The Nuggets also have a shooter in Harris who can make big shots when called upon and his good defensive skills are not spoken of enough. They do swing from being red hot in games to icy cold and that has cost them when they’ve been in winning positions. The potential turning points for Denver will be if they can get points production from the less heralded players like Monte Morris, Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig who can all contribute on both ends of the court. They are still missing experienced guard Will Barton due to a nagging knee complaint that hasn’t healed, but they can look to Porter Jr. to give them some scoring impetus.
This will be an all-or-nothing fight for every basket. The Clippers are the odds on favourites and will probably edge this series. The Nuggets can surprise teams when they go on runs and Murray has proven to be a sensational scorer when called upon. This should go the way of the Clippers though, they are hardened enough to grind out wins in a way the Nuggets aren’t able to.