Though it took more work than they might have been expecting, the Los Angeles Clippers put away the Dallas Mavericks over the weekend, and had been awaiting their second-round opponent since then. Now, they have the answer. They’ll be facing the Denver Nuggets with a trip to the Western Conference finals on the line.
Kawhi Leonard and Co. needed six games to defeat Luka Doncic and the Mavericks, and aside from their blowout win in Game 5, all of them were a grind. It wasn’t the prettiest basketball of all time, but this new-look Clippers squad took care of business and passed their first postseason test together.
The Nuggets had even more trouble in the first round, falling behind 3-1 to the Utah Jazz. It looked like they were heading towards a disappointing early exit, but thanks to the heroics of Jamal Murray, they won three straight to became just the 12th team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit.
Ahead of Game 1, here’s the full schedule and some key storylines for this series.
(2) Clippers vs. (3) Nuggets
All times Eastern
Game 1: Thursday, Sept. 3, 9 p.m. I TNTGame 2: Saturday, Sept. 5, 9 p.m. | TNTGame 3: Monday, Sept. 7, 9 p.m. | TNTGame 4: Wednesday, Sept. 9, 9 p.m. | ESPNGame 5: Friday, Sept. 11, TBD | TNT*Game 6: Sunday, Sept. 13, TBD | ESPN*Game 7: Tuesday, Sept. 15 TBD | ESPN*
1. No rest for the Nuggets
Shortly after the Nuggets’ dramatic Game 7 victory over the Jazz on Tuesday night, Jamal Murray joined Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter and was bewildered to hear that their second round series would be starting so soon. “We play Thursday? Murray asked. “We only get two days off? Man… well that’s a bummer.”
The Clippers, meanwhile, finished up their first-round series on Sunday afternoon, giving them four full days to rest up for the second round. That’s not some incredible amount of time, but it’s double the amount the Nuggets got, and every extra day means more in the bubble, where the schedule has been extremely condensed.
It’s hard to quantify exactly how much this matters, but it’s certainly an advantage for the Clippers. While they were enjoying some extra time to relax and prepare for round two, the Nuggets were grinding out must-win games that were exhausting from both a physical and emotional standpoint.
This Denver team is drained, as both their play in Game 7 against the Jazz, and Murray’s reaction revealed. That’s not the state you want to be in heading into a series where you’re already the underdogs against a title contender.
2. Will Playoff P show up?
Doc Rivers doesn’t have to worry about what he’s going to get from Kawhi Leonard. The reigning Finals MVP is a machine in the playoffs and averaged 32.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.3 steals per game in the first round. His other star, however, is less of a guarantee.
George’s overall playoff reputation overall is a bit harsh, but he’s delivered some notable stinkers in big games in recent years, and was not great in the first round. In the Clippers’ two losses to the Mavericks, he scored a combined 23 points on 7-of-31 from the field. And for the series, he averaged 18.5 points and shot 35.8 percent.
The Clippers ended up winning anyway, but as the competition gets better, they can’t afford that type of play from their second-best player. With all of their offensive weapons, George doesn’t have to put up 30 a night or anything, but he absolutely has to be more consistent.
To that end, the Nuggets have been one of the worst defensive teams in the playoffs overall, and are by far the worst remaining team, giving up 120.3 points per 100 possessions. If they keep defending as they did against the Jazz, George should be able to get in a nice rhythm.
3. Can Murray keep up this pace?
Jamal Murray was unreal in the first round, and the Nuggets would have been sitting at home a week ago if it wasn’t for his efforts. He averaged 31.6 points per game in the series, and registered games of 50, 50, 42 and 36, becoming just the fourth player ever with multiple 50-pointers in a series in the process, and the first since Allen Iverson to put up 40-plus in three straight playoff games.
He also did so while playing over 38 minutes per game, and pushing himself to the limit, both physically and emotionally — just listen to his interview after Game 6. It also didn’t help that he took a knee to the quad from Joe Ingles in Game 7 against the Jazz, and was clearly hobbled to close out that game.
Asking him to keep up this pace for another series seems unfair, especially with games going every other day. However, if they want a chance at upsetting the Clippers, he’s probably going to have to do it, and even then it might not be enough. Paul Millsap has given them nothing, Michael Porter Jr. can’t stay on the floor because of his defensive lapses and Nikola Jokic was Denver’s only other consistent scorer in the first round.
If they aren’t getting big nights from Murray, it’s hard to see how the Nuggets will be able to keep up with the Clippers’ high-powered offense.
4. History on the line
The Clippers’ franchise has been around since back in 1970 when they debuted as the Buffalo Braves. In those 50 years, they have 15 playoff appearances and have won six series — four of which, including the first-round win over the Mavericks, have come in the last decade.
Considering those numbers, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’ve never made it past the second round. Not even Chris Paul and the Lob City team could get to the Western Conference finals. Their 50-year conference finals drought is the longest in the league, with the Atlanta Hawks (44 years) and Washington Wizards (41) next in line.