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Preview: Denver Nuggets kick off conference semifinals against Clippers

Have you recovered from the final sequence of the Denver Nuggets’ Game 7 victory over the Utah Jazz? Well, there’s no time to bask in the glory of the dramatic win. The Nuggets must be ready to take on one of, if not the best team in the NBA.

Yes, just 48 hours after their Game 7 victory, the Nuggets are set to face an LA Clippers team that hasn’t played since Sunday. Clearly, LA will have the preparation and rest advantage over Denver, but as we’ve seen throughout the first round, the Nuggets aren’t the type to make excuses.

Although Jamal Murray struggled in Game 7, Nikola Jokić came through for Denver with 30 points and 14 rebounds, including a tough hook shot with just under 30 seconds that was the deciding basket. Gary Harris impressed on the defensive end in just his second game since March 11, as Denver’s defense showed up to clinch the series.

With the win, the Nuggets became just the 12th team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 series deficit.

What looms is a daunting task. Armed with a plethora of elite talent on both ends of the floor, the Clippers certainly appear to be a favorite to make the NBA Finals and even win the championship. Led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, LA dominates on both ends of the floor and withstood a tough battle from the Dallas Mavericks in the first round.

LA won two of its three meetings with Denver in the regular season.

Here are three storylines to watch for in this second-round series.

 

A Blue Arrow encore performance?

Even with his struggles in Game 7, Jamal Murray was one of the best performers in the entire postseason through the first round. In the seven games against Utah, the 23-year-old averaged 31.6 points, 6.3 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game on an incredible 68.2 true shooting percentage.

The countless clutch shots made down the stretch of close games showcased Murray’s shotmaking abilities, while he also contributed on the glass and created quality looks for teammates.

It remains to be seen just how much energy Murray will have left, following that grueling first-round series, as the ascending star will now have to face one of the best defenses in the league.

In three games against LA this season, Murray has struggled, averaging just 13.3 points per game on 37.5 percent shooting from the field. Armed with a bevy of superb perimeter defenders, the Clippers have the luxury of constantly throwing different personnel at Murray that has the length and agility to disrupt the Canadian guard. LA also thrives in defending the mid-range, an area Murray likes to attack from.

In the regular season, opponents shot 37.6 percent on mid-range shots against the Clippers, which was the lowest mark in the league. If Murray isn’t able to find a rhythm in the series, Denver’s offense will have to find other ways to attack LA’s defense in order to stay competitive.

 

Can Jokić dominate LA’s frontcourt?

Speaking of finding other ways to attack the Clippers’ defense, Denver’s potential success in this series likely boils down to Nikola Jokić and his ability to control the game on offense.

The Clippers will likely opt to have Ivica Zubac on the floor to match up with Jokić in the post, and while Zubac has become an underrated defender and rim protector for LA, Jokić had plenty of success against him in the 2019-20 season.

Per NBA.com’s tracking data, when directly matched up with Zubac this season, Jokić shot 13 of 23 (56.5 percent) from the field. The Serbian can use a variety of post moves and tricks to keep Zubac guessing, and if the Clippers can’t contain Jokić in the post with one defender, it may force double-teams that Jokić can try to use to his advantage by finding the open shooter or cutter.

Another important aspect of Jokić’s game that really helped Denver’s offense in the first round is his ability to connect from beyond the arc. The two-time All-Star shot 47.7 percent on 6.6 attempts per game from deep against the Jazz, which forced Rudy Gobert away from the rim, thus removing Utah’s rim protection against drives.

If Jokić can consistently knock down 3-pointers, Zubac will be drawn away from the rim, thus inviting drives to the basket and timely cuts from Denver’s supporting players.

 

Matching up with Leonard and George

The Clippers were the talk of the 2019 offseason for a reason. When you add two All-NBA caliber players in the same summer, you become the focus of the conversation.

Leonard and George present one of the most dynamic duos in the entire league, capable of locking players up on defense and willing the team to victory on the offensive end with tough shotmaking.

However, the Nuggets also made an offseason addition with the hopes of being able to match up better with teams such as the Clippers. Although it didn’t receive the fanfare of the Leonard signing and George trade, Denver’s trade for Jerami Grant could prove to be crucial in this series.

Although Grant has typically played power forward or center over the past couple of seasons, he is able to match up with opposing wings on the defensive end, which is exactly what he did against Leonard and George in the 2019-20 regular season.

In the two games George played in against Denver this season, he shot 0 of 7 when directly guarded by Grant. When Grant wasn’t busy harassing George, he spent his time limiting Leonard to 4-of-14 shooting from the field.

Of course, Grant can’t guard two players at once, meaning Gary Harris and Torrey Craig will be tasked with checking Leonard or George for large stretches of games. Harris rarely defended George in the regular season but did matchup against Leonard to little success.

The two-time Finals MVP shot 6 of 10 against Harris across two games in which the two directly matched up. Craig had some success defending George, limiting him to 3-of-7 shooting across two games this season.

Look for Malone to start with Grant matching up against Leonard, with Harris and Craig being tasked with defending George. Given that LA’s offense ranks fourth in the league in the frequency of isolations, if Denver’s best defenders can stifle Leonard and George, the Clippers could struggle to find a rhythm on offense.

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