The Nuggets vs. Jazz first-round series was the most entertaining in recent years. Denver won a tightly contested game seven to advance to round two. They will face the second seed Los Angeles Clippers, who took down Dallas in six games.
The Nuggets will undoubtedly have momentum after coming back from a 3-1 deficit. However, the Clippers will be a tougher matchup for the Nuggets. Denver will struggle to win four games against LA for several reasons.
The Nuggets were fortunate to face the Jazz in the first round. Utah was missing potent scorer Bojan Bogdanovic due to injury. Despite the absence, Utah was still able to score at a high volume. In the playoffs, Denver’s defensive rating was only better than that of Brooklyn and Dallas. Their defensive rating in the regular season was worse than all remaining playoff teams. These are scary signs, especially when preparing to play a Clippers team with four 18+ PPG scorers in the Regular Season.
On an equally poor defensively Dallas team, LA has averaged a staggering 126.7 PPG in the playoffs so far. This was even with the offensive struggles of Paul George. Down the stretch of games, the Nuggets tend to have Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, and Michael Porter Jr all in the game. They are three below-average defenders. These struggles alone could justify why Denver has little chance of progressing to the Conference Finals.
Fatigue is not as big of a factor as defensive struggles, but still something to consider. The Clippers wrapped up their series against Dallas on Sunday, which means they will get two more days of rest before game one on Thursday. While this may not seem like much, it is a considerable difference-maker this far into the season.
LA will come out of the gate with even more energy than usual. With their tremendous depth in addition to two days of rest, fatigue will be non-existent. Denver only gets two days of rest after a tough series, physically and mentally. They also played their star players heavy minutes against the Jazz. Playing a game every other day was bound to have a toll on these players, but Denver has it worse in comparison.
LA’s Defensive Versatility
Denver makes up for their defensive struggles with offensive prowess. Coach Mike Malone’s offense is designed to get quality, high percentage looks. They can do this due to having both Jokic and Murray as playmakers. The Nuggets were 4th in assists and 7th in turnovers per game during the regular season. They also score the ball efficiently, with 47.3% from the field only trailing the Lakers, Pacers, and Bucks. Denver will have some great offensive games in this series.
However, the Clippers defense could prevent them from reaching anywhere near their full potential. A team designed to take down LeBron James and the Lakers, LA has several lockdown wing defenders. Patrick Beverley, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Marcus Morris, and JaMychal Green are terrific perimeter defenders. They will make it extremely difficult for any Nuggets players to have a huge game, including the red hot Jamal Murray. Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac taking turns playing defense on Nikola Jokic aren’t too bad either.
Overall, this series could highlight the importance of defense in the postseason. The Clippers have a more talented roster on paper, and this series should play into their advantage.