Remember all the way back to January 12 of this year? Apparently it was an average winter day in Denver, no one outside of China was worried about coronavirus, and the Nuggets beat the Clippers relatively easily in the first regular season game against a possible playoff foe. Here are the highlights to refresh our memories:
This time around, the matchup will look a bit different. The Clippers added even more size at the trade deadline by acquiring Marcus Morris, and they will have towering All-Pro shooting guard Paul George available. The Nuggets will counter with the addition of a key big man of their own, Paul Millsap, who was down with a knee in Game 1. The Clippers also come into this game in a bit of a funk, having gone 5-5 in their last 10 games, which include two losses to the Kings and a blowout loss at Minnesota.
Here are five matchups I’ll be interested in while drinking a beer at Stoney’s Uptown Joint with a bunch of you.
Length vs. Depth
This is where the rubber will meet the road if the Nuggets face the other L.A. in the playoffs. The Clippers are huge. With the exception of their two 6’1 point guards, nearly every player on the roster is 6’7 or taller. The Nuggets’ starters will likely face a lineup that includes Kawhi Leonard (6’7), Paul George (6’8), Marcus Morris (6’9), and Ivica Zubac (7’0) on the court at the same time. If the Nuggets counter with Murray (6’4), Harris (6’4), Barton (6’5), Millsap (6’7), and Jokic (7’0) — as expected — the size advantage for the Clippers will be immediately felt.
But the Nuggets have the bigs to counter the Clippers on their bench. Jerami Grant (6’8) is coming off his best game as a Nugget, where he scored 29 points on 12 of 15 shooting, and he’s learned how to play well alongside Jokic. Plumlee (6’11) and MPJ (6’10) are also back and looked healthy against the Pistons. MPJ, in particular, played well against the Clippers in the first matchup, too, tallying 13 points and 4 rebounds in just 19 minutes. Barton, on the other hand, struggled as the starting small forward against the much bigger Kawhi Leonard, managing just 6 points and 5 boards in 32 minutes.
So, Coach Malone needs to get creative with his rotations. The players who match up the best against the Clippers’ massive starting wings are all on the bench (MPJ, Grant, and Craig), but Malone seems fairly committed to the starting five “that made it to the Western Conference Semifinals last year.” Could we at least see a few minutes with Jerami Grant at the 3? Could the Nuggets try out a bigger backcourt with Harris and Barton at the guard spots along with MPJ, Grant, and Jokic with Millsap and Plumlee matched up against Green and Harrell (who torched the Nuggets in the first game)? Or do the Nuggets try a small-ball lineup at some point to try to run the Clippers off the court?
If Coach doesn’t find a way to juggle his rotations effectively, it could be a long night of deflections, poor rebounding, and tough shots.
Jokic vs. Himself
On the other hand, the best big in the game will be Nikola Jokic. Neither Zubac nor Harrell could defend Jokic in the first matchup. The big guy put up an efficient 20/15/6 and looked in control of the paint throughout the game. Here he is carving up the Clippers’ interior defense:
But with Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Morris causing matchup nightmares for the Nuggets’ starting wings, Jokic needs to dominate down low. He’s been on an MVP pace, averaging 24.8/10.3/8.1 over his last 15 games, but can he put up a similar — or even better — line against a tough defensive team that can rotate bodies at him all night? Can he maintain enough energy and aggression to consistently force double teams so the Nuggets’ smaller guards and forwards have open looks? And can he and Millsap effectively control the paint on the other end?
If he can, the Nuggets can negate the size disadvantage they have on the perimeter.
The Blue Arrow vs. Mr. 94 Feet and Sweet Lou
There is no other way to spin it: Jamal Murray has been spectacular since coming back from injury. In his last 10 games, Murray’s averaging 25.1/3.3/6.1 on 55% from the field and 41% from three. That is the production of a legitimate second star on a championship team. And he’s played with the poise and consistency that this young team needs from their starting point guard.
But Murray will have his hands full with the two-headed point guard rotation of Patrick Beverly and Lou Williams. While Murray has a size advantage on both Clipper guards, they are fierce competitors who thrive on getting under the skin of their opponents and making momentum plays. Murray will be hounded all night, and he’ll have some big shots hit in his face on the defensive end. How will he respond? Can the Blue Arrow match the intensity on both ends of the floor against two guards looking to neutralize the Nuggets’ second best player?
If Murray and Jokic win their respective matchups, the Nuggets could survive a big game from Kawhi or George and steal a game in Los Angeles.
The Battle of the Benches
Friday night’s matchup will feature the two deepest teams in the NBA. Both the Nuggets and Clippers can go 12 deep, and both have the flexibility to play with different paces and styles.
In the first matchup, the Nuggets won with a balanced attack that included substantial contributions from their bench. I already noted MPJ’s 13/4, but they also got 12/6 from Monte Morris, 11/5 from Torrey Craig in 27 minutes, and 7/6/4 from Mason Plumlee. The Clippers’ bench was bolstered by 30 minutes of great play from Harrell, but Landry Shamet, Maurice Harkless, JaMychal Green, and and Rodney McGruder combined to score just 8 points.
Now that the Clippers are healthy, their bench includes Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell — starters on many NBA teams — as well as effective (and tall) role players like Green. The Nuggets need to keep pace with their talented but inconsistent bench, which has gone through a lot of changes the past few weeks. Malone seemed to have found the right formula during last two games by keeping either Murray or Jokic on the court with the bench instead of going to a completely separate lineup.
But can the Nuggets get at least one bigtime performance off the bench? Can Plumlee and Grant defend and rebound well enough to keep the Clippers bigs from running it up, and can either Grant or MPJ use their length and shooting to positively impact the game?
A related prediction: If the Nuggets get 15 or more from MPJ, they win. If he scores 5 or less, they lose.
Sports Bar Burger Showdown
The Stiffs are throwing a watch party with the Nuggets this Friday night at Stoney’s Uptown Joint. There’s a lot to be excited about — giveaways, good company, a legal broadcast of a Nuggets’ game. But I, for one, will be intensely focused on Stoney’s burger game. Some Stiffs and I crushed four BBQ bacon burgers at Blake Street Tavern the last time we got together for a game. But Stoney’s has a double patty jalapeño cream cheese and onion ring monster that could top it ...
Come to the Watch Party and find out along with the Stiffs and some Nuggets’ folks. Besides, it’s middle of winter — what else could possibly be going on at 8:30 on a Friday night in downtown Denver?