The Nuggets got Clawed, spindled and mutilated.
This NBA playoff series opened with a statement game. There was no mistaking what Kawhi “The Claw” Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers bluntly told us Thursday, during a decisive 120-97 victory.
Denver is unworthy of being taken seriously as a championship contender.
“You can say whatever, it would be true,” Nuggets center Nikola Jokic said. “It was a bad, bad night for us.”
But know what really hurts?
Jokic stood there and let it all be.
Now, we all love Big Honey. The Nuggets wouldn’t be here without Jokic, who was magnificent in a close-out victory against Utah. So is it OK to offer a little tough love?
Hey, Joker: Be better.
Harsh? Nope. With the honor of being recognized as an all-star comes great responsibility.
As it is, nobody in America outside of the 303 thinks Denver belongs on the same floor with Leonard, who finished with 29 points. Or did you not hear Charles Barkley’s snark at halftime, when he dismissed the Nuggets?
“They got no chance in this series,” the Chuckster said.
And know what? Barkley just might be right. Will the Nuggets even put up a fight?
If Joker’s not better, Denver has a less-than-zero shot to win a game, much less this series.
Oh, Jokic did have his moments. The best one was his ode to the late, great Darryl Dawkins with a basket to tie the score at 31 to end the first quarter. The Nuggets center poured some special sauce on a Serbian-thunder-flyin’, Clipper-cryin’, rump-roastin’, bun-toastin, wham-bam-Joker-I-am dunk.
And then Jokic disappeared.
Jamal Murray grabbed the nation’s attention with 50-point outbursts and tugged on heartstrings with his emotional appeals for social justice, while bringing Denver back from a 3-1 series hole against Utah during the playoffs’ opening-round.
Yes, fatigue makes cowards of us all. A body sorely in need of rest might explain why Murray missed 10 of 15 field-goal attempts and finished with a forgettable 12 points against L.A.
Forcing the Nuggets back on the court fewer than 48 hours after surviving all that Jazz was not fair. But is anything about 2020 fair?
“I was not tired at all,” Jokic said.
Haven’t we seen this pathetic defense against L.A. somewhere before? Give me a sec. Oh, yeah. The welcome mat in the lane and the socially distanced D against the 3-ball almost got Denver run out of the bubble.
This contest was basically over after two quarters, when the Clippers shot 63% from the field. There was no mystery to L.A.’s offense. It was a lay-up line.
And the buck stopped with Jokic, whose idea of defense was to retrieve the ball from the bottom of the basket.
Skinny Joker is good. But his effort can’t be so slim at the defensive end as to be invisible.
“For us to win, we have to have better games from Jamal and Nikola,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
From Patrick Beverley to Paul George, the Clippers can throw long and aggressive D at Murray from all angles. He’s not going to average 30-plus points in this series.
With Ivica Zubac in the post for L.A., the most advantageous matchup for the Nuggets to find success with is to put the ball in the hands of Jokic. His 15 points prior to taking a seat on the bench to watch the conclusion of this blowout won’t cut it.
Where do the Nuggets go from here?
It’s the job of Coach Malone to give his team a reason to believe.
He gave guard Gary Harris, whose defensive contributions were invaluable to surviving and advancing from Round 1 of the playoffs, his first spot in the starting lineup since March.
Well, so much for that experiment.
Go back to Monte Morris in the starting five. Let Harris be a D-specialist off the bench. Morris can get the offense moving and allow Murray to concentrate on scoring.
And Paul Millsap? Please. Don’t get me started.
“I’m going to my room and do about 100 push-ups, just for a mentality check,” said Millsap, after finishing at a minus-16 in net scoreboard points during his 24 minutes of playing time.
Millsap is an old basketball player. I’m an old guy. Getting old ain’t easy, as I know all too well.
So I won’t pick on Millsap for playing old. In fact, I will pour him a glass of lemonade if he takes a seat on the bench.
In his place, the Nuggets should start Michael Porter Jr. Or Mason Plumlee. Or Rocky the mascot.