Neither the Los Angeles Clippers nor Denver Nuggets had it easy in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Both teams were tasked with stopping the ascension of a superstar to levels previously unseen. Luka Doncic was magical against the Clippers, highlighted by his buzzer-beater in Game 4, but Dallas just couldn’t muster enough firepower once Kristaps Porzingis went down and Los Angeles’ defense locked in. Donovan Mitchell was equally spectacular against Denver, putting up two 50 point performances over the course of seven games, a feat that had only been done by two others in NBA history (Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan).
But the hindrance of the series for Utah wasn’t something they could totally control. It was who they couldn’t stop.
Ironically, Denver’s win against Utah was due to the fact that their own superstar ascended to a level even higher than Mitchell did for the Jazz. Jamal Murray matched Mitchell’s feat of scoring 50 twice in the same series, and subsequently became the fourth player ever to do so. Murray somehow hit tougher shots than Mitchell did, and overcame his team’s pitiful defense at the same time.
Murray has a new challenge this round. While the point guard breached his playoff consistency block against Utah, it remains to be seen how much he can truly make up for it with his shot making and overall impact. This series will be the tell-all.
The Clippers aren’t Utah. Sure, the Jazz were better offensively than projected against Denver, but ultimately it was Mitchell, a surprising outburst from Rudy Gobert, and the heat check of Jordan Clarkson that powered them. That’s it.
Kawhi Leonard isn’t any of those guys, and the Nuggets defense against the Jazz doesn’t offer us any hope that they can even begin to slow him down. Jerami Grant offers the length and athleticism, but that’s just one body. Immediately slapping Gary Harris – who is just getting back into form – on him could backfire. Michael Porter Jr. is a stiff. Paul Millsap has looked the 35 years old that he is.
There’s also Paul George, who offered a lot of reasons to not worry about him in the first round, but rediscovered himself in Game 5 by putting up 35 points on 12-18 shooting.
Whether George is a factor or not, the Leonard puzzle still isn’t solved, and threats still exist aside from him. If Grant is put on Leonard, Harris probably gets the Lou Williams assignment late in games. That would seem to give George open shots and and allow Montrezl Harrell to work against the slower, bigger Nikola Jokic. Harrell’s role has decreased though, and LA has opted to play Marcus Morris late at times instead. Additionally, Ivica Zubac is probably a better matchup against the Joker than Harrell thanks to his size. Jokic’s defense isn’t fantastic, but the downside is that Zubac’s offense could hurt late in games. That’s a chess match the Clippers will have to play. Harrell could get bodied, but Zubac could get hunted.
If Denver’s defense can’t hold, it’s up to Murray. The Clippers overall swath of wings should be able to put the Nuggets star back in his place a bit, but he’s hot to a degree that’s hard to quantify right now. It’s close to where Damian Lillard was during the seeding games – no defense is going to truly shut him down.
Putting your best wing on a fiery guard has a complicated success rate. The Rockets just swallowed Oklahoma City’s three guard lineup in multiple games during their seven game series, most notably late in Game 7. But Murray cooked the long, athletic Royce O’Neal throughout Denver’s series with Utah, as the Jazz found him to be their best option after Murray ripped through Mitchell.
Leonard is different, obviously. He’s the best perimeter defender of all-time. Paul George is still a good defender despite his poor play. The Clippers have a plethora of lineups they can play that can switch every matchup, giving Murray different looks.
This series will be a test of how high Murray can truly elevate. Is he now one of the 15 best players in the league? Top 20? Top 30? We’ll know where he falls after this series. How long he drags it on will give us our answer, because it seems as if Michael Porter Jr won’t be able to contribute in the way he could. That would be a nice boost, and at least put to work the Clippers best weapons to work.
Murray is going to have at least one game where he makes nothing else matter. The Clippers had plenty of laspes in defensive effort against Dallas, and that will surely occur again. How much Murray benefits from that determines the length of this series.
Prediction: Clippers in 6