Lock it and load it. After a grueling 7-Game duel with the Utah Jazz, the Nuggets have advanced to face the Clippers in Round 2. The Clippers faced a few struggles of their own early in their series against the Dallas Mavericks, but they now find themselves with four days of rest between series. The Nuggets on the other hand will face one of the shortest turnarounds of any team in the playoffs, starting their next series barely two days after ending their first.
Regular Season Matchups
The Clippers met the Nuggets three times during the regular season, once in Denver, once in LA, and once in the Orlando Bubble. LAC won two of the three meetings, dropping the one true road game in the mile-high city. On paper, the Clippers possess the superior talent. However, the paper test did not hold true against the Mavericks. They struggled more than expected in multiple games of their first round series, including giving up a 20+ point lead in a Game 4 loss. During the three regular season clashes between Denver and LA, a few key stats consistently determined the outcome of the game.
Clippers Key Stats
Yes, obviously points are the number one factor in determining games, this wasn’t meant to be a sarcastic point. When the Clippers lost to Denver this year, they only scored 104 points, a far cry from the league average of 111.8. The team boasts four scorers averaging higher than 18 points per game, an incredible feat for a single season. That being said, Paul George was unable to play in this loss due to injury. Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell combined for 81 of the 104 points scored. This means the other eight players that played combined for 23 points. A pitiful performance from the supposed best bench in the league.
Pivoting only slightly into the next key, shooting percentages played a big part in the lack of scoring during this loss. Again, the three stars played well in this aspect, combining to shoot 38-of-84 (52.7%) from the field. The rest of the team combined to shoot 9-of-29 (31.0%) from the floor. A similar pattern holds true from both the free throw and three-point lines. The percentages between the stars and role players dropped from 81.8% to 50.0% and 31.3% to 17.6% respectively. Bad. Just bad.
In both of their wins over the Nuggets, the Clippers shot exactly four more free throws and made exactly six more free throws than their opponents. The exact match might be a coincidence, but getting to the free throw line more than their opponent is not. In their one loss, they took 11 fewer free throw attempts than Denver, including nine fewer makes. In both of their wins, LAC shot at least 15% better from the line than Denver, while shooting about 2% worse in their loss. Those percentages may seem small, but it’s no coincidence that they correlate to wins and losses.
Once again, the Clippers managed to beat the Nuggets in the turnover battle by the exact same amount (5) in both wins. Another coincidence on the stat sheet becomes a major key to winning this playoff series. During the Clippers one loss to Denver, the teams tied in total turnovers. While this would be acceptable in most circumstances, it helps support the argument that the Clippers need to win the turnover battle in this series.
Moving away from Denver-specific comparisons, Paul George has been the key for this team in the playoffs so far. While his troubles have been complex, the bottom line appears to be simple. When Paul George has a positive +/- rating, the Clippers are 4-0 in the playoffs. When he has a negative +/- rating, they’re 0-2. The math isn’t hard here. George does not have to be a superstar by himself. He has one of the, if not the, best supporting cast in basketball. Oh! And not to mention reigning Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. George just has to have a positive impact on games and shoot better than, oh I don’t know, 30% from the field. Is that too much to ask?
Clippers Key Matchups
Again, the on-paper test favors the Clippers when looking at sheer talent across the board. Two of the Top 5 two-way players in the league, the highest scoring bench duo in NBA history, and one of the best supporting casts in recent memory. However, none of that means anything if it doesn’t come together on the court on the highest stage.
I find this to be one of the more intriguing matchups that could make or break the series. Kawhi and PG are arguably the best two wing defenders in the league. However, in the Dallas series, it took a few games before these two took it upon themselves to guard the Mav’s only hope, Luka Doncic. Fortunately, the Nuggets do not have a wing player capable of picking apart a defense the way Doncic can. This could go a long way in saving the Clipper duo’s legs down the stretch of close games.
What the Nuggets do have however, is perimeter defenders of their own. Jerami Grant is a 6’9 athlete more than capable of slowing down any perimeter player in the league. He will likely get the nod to check Kawhi from the jump. Of course, we don’t expect Kawhi to be contained, but this matchup opens the opportunity for PG to take advantage of a smaller defender. Standing at 6’8, George should have a height advantage over the Nuggets’ likely starting guard, Gary Harris (6’4). That isn’t to say George won’t draw matchups with Torrey Craig (6’7) or PJ Dozier (6’6), but he should have plenty of opportunities to exploit mismatches in this series.
Clippers Frontcourt Rotation
Ivica Zubac has emerged as a legit rim-protector, despite the narrative of the Clippers not having a defensive big on the roster.
Clearly, he’s taken a massive step since last season. The problem does not come from Zubac being on the court. In fact, it’s the opposite. Trez is a 6th Man of the Year candidate, and rightfully so, but he is not a defensive stud like Zubac. The Clippers need Harrell in the rotation if they’re going to win ball games, but more than that they need Zubac to matchup with the best interior player on the other team.
Enter Nikola Jokic.
Jokic is a Top 10 player in this league, it should be no debate. He’s going to get his stats against anyone. It’s on Zubac, Rivers, and the rest of the team to make sure he doesn’t single handedly decide the outcome of games. Zubac’s defense on Jokic could be the x-factor in this series.
The Return of Pat Bev
Jamal Murray put on a clinic alongside fellow rising star Donovan Mitchell in the Nuggets first round series against the Utah Jazz. The two guards combined for 475 points, the most by two players in a single series in NBA history.
Despite playing slightly banged-up in Game 7, expect Murray to continue his scoring onslaught for as long as possible. The Clippers best shot at slowing him down?
Beverley returned from injury to play 20 minutes in the Clippers Game 1 victory over Dallas. He proceeded to miss the remaining five games in the series with a nagging calf injury. The same injury that sidelined him for multiple games earlier in the season. If Beverley is able to return to action for Round 2, it will be a major boost to the Clippers in all aspects of the game.
Clippers Road Ahead
Not to overlook any opponent, but the Clippers now stand four wins away from reaching their first ever Conference Finals. Four wins away from likely meeting LeBron James and the team across the hall in LA. The team has to take care of business on the court over the next week or so, but we as fans can be as excited as ever. The potential is there.
Will the result live up to the hype?
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