There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Game 3 is absolutely critical for the Denver Nuggets.

After losing Game 1 in uninspiring fashion due to a number of factors, including some outside of Denver’s control, the Nuggets bounced back in Game 2, blindsiding the Los Angeles Clippers in the first quarter and never relinquishing the lead after the fact. Denver made up for Game 1 in so many ways, one of which was to establish themselves as a team the Clippers couldn’t take lightly. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray weren’t to be trifled with, and even as the Clippers loaded up on the two stars in the second half, Denver’s role players made enough shots in the second half to prove the Clippers weren’t guaranteed a win with anything less than an A-level performance.

The Clippers may or may not be better than the Nuggets, but the Nuggets are certainly good enough to win games in this series if they force the Clippers out of their element. They did that in Game 2. Is it repeatable in Game 3?

Let’s talk about it.

The Essentials

Who: Denver Nuggets vs Los Angeles Clippers (Series tied 1-1)

When: 7:00 PM MDT

Where: The Bubble. Orlando, FL.

How to watch/listen: Denver Stiffs does not condone piracy..unless its the romanticized 18th-century type. TNT, League Pass for non-Denver market viewers. Sneak into the bubble with an Adam Silver mask. 92.5 FM KKSE Altitude Sports Radio.

Rival Blog(s): 213 Hoops, Clips Nation

Position Nuggets Clippers
PG Jamal Murray Patrick Beverley
SG Gary Harris Paul George
SF Jerami Grant Kawhi Leonard
PF Paul Millsap Marcus Morris
C Nikola Jokic Ivica Zubac
Bench Monte Morris, Torrey Craig, Michael Porter Jr., Mason Plumlee Reggie Jackson, Lou Williams, Landry Shamet, JaMychal Green, Montrezl Harrell

Injury Report: Nikola Jokic – QUESTIONABLE (right wrist), Will Barton – OUT (knee), Vlatko Cancar – OUT (foot)

Key Matchup: Jamal Murray vs Clippers perimeter defense

It’s pretty clear from Jamal Murray’s first nine games in the bubble that he’s playing at a pretty high level. There are games where he doesn’t play up to his standard, but in Denver’s five wins, Murray is averaging 34.4 points per game, helping the Nuggets keep pace throughout the contest before turning on his own individual scoring in fourth quarters. In the other four contests, Murray has scored 14, 12, 50, and 12 points respectively. Outside of an incredible performance in Game 4 against the Jazz, Denver’s losses have coincided with Murray being unable to get the scoring going early.

The Clippers are about to load up on Murray defensively in Game 3, knowing that his scoring success is what buoys the Nuggets in almost every game. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have mostly split time against Murray in the two matchups so far, and their combination length, athleticism, and defensive intelligence generally frustrates guards like Murray. Still, if Murray can handle the pressure and make great decisions with the ball in his hands, then LA’s defensive scheme can be broken. It’s a major battleground heading into what is usually a decisive Game 3.

Key thing to watch for: Nikola Jokic’s injury status

On Sunday afternoon, Denver’s injury report included Nikola Jokic for the first time in the bubble, as the star center is questionable with a right wrist sprain. Jokic will most likely play, but it’s notable that he showed up on the injury report at all, as he generally plays through minor injuries without an issue and rarely finds himself on the injury report.

Will Jokic’s shooting efficiency take a dip? Was this an injury that he sustained during Game 2 and one of the reasons he stopped shooting as frequently in the second half? There are a lot of questions left unanswered about this latest bit of news. One thing is clear though: the timing is incredibly poor. After a big Game 2 win to even the series at 1-1, Denver’s best chance of stealing this series from the favored Clippers is to go up 2-1 and apply some legitimate pressure. We will see if Jokic’s injury prohibits that in any way.

Opening thought: Breaking the postseason trend

During Denver’s first playoff series with Jokic and Murray as the main characters against the San Antonio Spurs, the Nuggets escaped with a win in Game 2 before losing Game 3 on the road behind a demoralizing performance from Spurs guard Derrick White that incited change in Nuggets the starting lineup.

During Denver’s second playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Game 3 was an epic four overtime marathon that ended in the Nuggets losing on a Rodney Hood dagger three late in the fourth overtime. Denver bounced back in Game 4, but if they win Game 3, they may never have played a Game 7.

During Denver’s last playoff series against the Utah Jazz, Utah absolutely demoralized Denver in Game 3 and started what I believed at the time to be an epic meltdown of the Nuggets organization. As we all know, that didn’t end up happening, with Denver coming back from down 3-1 in the series.

I would love to see the Nuggets win Game 3 against the Clippers to buck this postseason trend of Denver putting themselves at a disadvantage and needing to overcome steep odds to advance. Winning tonight would go a long way in accomplishing that, and putting the Clippers on their heels would be a subplot that could shift the entire NBA landscape if it happened.

We will see if the Nuggets are up to the task.