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Kawhi Leonard is really good
- Kawhi Leonard may be the best player in the NBA
- The Nuggets looked really tired after an adrenaline filled first quarter
- Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic missed shots they normally make
- 1-on-1 containment was less than desirable
- On to the next one
While it wasn’t clear from the beginning of this game, it became more clear as time wore on how daunting of a task the Denver Nuggets have in front of them trying to compete with the Los Angeles Clippers. Even factoring in the rest advantage LA had over Denver, there was a pretty clear discrepancy between the level each team could reach tonight. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic weren’t elite offensively like they had been all series versus the Utah Jazz, and after those two, it was difficult to find consistent offense throughout the game.
Here are my five takeaways from what ended up being a blowout:
Kawhi Leonard may be the best player in the NBA
It was unbelievable watching Kawhi Leonard methodically work on the offensive end of the floor. The Clippers don’t run a ton of different actions to get him open, mostly because he needs so little space to take and make the shots he’s comfortable with taking. His shot chart tonight says it all:
He made one of his two three-pointers, made the four free throws he attempted, and converted his three shots in the restricted area. That accounts for 13 of his 29 points. The other 16 come from shots outside the restricted area and around the foul line area. That’s his spot. He’s so consistent on those shots that even with Jerami Grant playing excellent defense the entire way, it just doesn’t matter.
On top of the scoring, he grabbed two steals and block, limited Jamal Murray offensively, and blew up a number of Denver’s actions that usually result in an open look. He has some weaknesses in his game, and I thought he was just “okay” at handling double teams today, but when left to his own devices 1-on-1, there isn’t a better or more consistent scorer in the NBA.
Denver’s in for a challenge with him.
The Nuggets appeared as fatigued as they said they were
The viral video of Jamal Murray finding out the Nuggets had short rest before playing tonight said it all. This team was coming off of a highly emotional series against the Utah Jazz, and coming back from down 3-1 was about as mentally taxing of an exercise as they could ask for. Coming into this game, it was well publicized, by the Nuggets and the media at large, just how tired the Nuggets were. Getting this Game 1 would be a challenge.
They ended up getting the burst of adrenaline initially that most teams get when coming out and trying to do the right thing by their teammates, but by the end of the second quarter, Denver’s starters were dragging. The momentum was gone, and the Clippers quickly took control of the game. The Nuggets didn’t fight them that hard to take it back either.
It’s hard to take too much from this particular game for that very reason. It’s possible the Nuggets were outmatched and clearly didn’t feel like they had it by the second quarter. We will see if this loss was purely a fatigue thing or if the Nuggets truly feel outmatched for the rest of the series. We’ve seen this team battle back from adversity before, even if they appear to have folded. It’s their modus operandi.
Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic didn’t have it going today
This series was always going to be the biggest test of Jamal Murray’s young career. Without Will Barton as a secondary ball handler for likely the entire series, the Nuggets started a lineup that includes exactly one true ball handler: Murray. The Clippers defense took turns guarding him. When it wasn’t former Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard, it was ace wing defender Paul George. When it wasn’t George, it was bulldog Patrick Beverley. The Clippers make Murray work for his shots, but even when left open, Murray didn’t hit the shots he needed to hit to give Denver a chance. He finished with 12 points, six assists, and two turnovers on 5/15 from the field and 2/8 from three.
Nikola Jokic didn’t fair much better, missing the majority of his perimeter jump shots and going just 6/14 from the field. He had some incredible passes in the first quarter, but when the ball movement and player movement dried up after that, he wasn’t asked to create 1-on-1 almost every single time. He will generally make more shots than he did today, and I have no question he will bounce back with better performances for the rest of the series.
The big question is where the rest of the help will come from offensively.
1-on-1 defense was an issue
The Clippers’ entire offense is designed around offensive players with the capability to score 1-on-1 against their defensive counterparts. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George lead the charge in that department, but Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, and Marcus Morris are all excellent 1-on-1 scorers in their own right. The Nuggets struggled to deal with that containment, as their wings and forwards were consistently poor and allowed the Clippers to create advantage situations in the paint.
Jerami Grant contested Kawhi about as well as can be asked tonight, and it just didn’t matter that much. The real issue comes with Gary Harris and Torrey Craig on Paul George, Paul Millsap on Marcus Morris, and Jamal Murray or Monte Morris on Lou Williams. Those three Clippers scored at will off the dribble and got all the way to the rim. When Jokic helped under the basket, the Clippers either rotated the ball or passed it to Kawhi who scored 1-on-1 whenever asked.
That’s gonna be an issue for almost any team, let alone the Nuggets who have serious deficiencies at the point of attack.
On to the next one
There’s no use dwelling on this one. The Nuggets got clocked in the second quarter and never recovered. They can take some lessons from it though. Doubling Kawhi Leonard more frequently will probably be the best way to go. Hoping Marcus Morris cools off is going to matter there. Finding more ways to get Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic easy looks and hoping they can convert at a high enough rate to keep them in this series.
I’m looking at Michael Porter Jr. too. Porter really struggled in this game, and he’s having some issues making his outside shot at the previous clip he established in the seeding games and throughout most of the first round against the Jazz. He went 0/6 from three-point range tonight. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do that before. The Nuggets need the best version of Porter to beat this Clippers team. The worst version won’t cut it.
Overall though, there’s not a lot to take away. The Clippers were better tonight and better rested. The Nuggets have to hope they can recover a bit while the Clippers’ mid-range shooting falls back to earth.