It’s so nice to be writing about this game after a win. Imagining Mike Conley’s shot going in at the buzzer is going to give me nightmares, let alone the actual nightmares if it had gone down. Now, it’s just a “what if?” that Denver Nuggets fans can consider as the team moves to the second round of the playoffs to face the Los Angeles Clippers.

Let’s talk about it:

I think the answer is Nikola Jokic, though Jamal Murray has the capability of surprising everybody as he has so clearly proved in the playoffs thus far. It’s Jokic because of the Los Angeles Clippers identity. Their perimeter defense is probably the best in the NBA, and it’s difficult to think of any comparable team. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are some of the best wing defenders in the NBA, and they frequently spend time on guards when the matchup dictates it.

They don’t have a great answer for an elite center though. Ivica Zubac is a good defender, but he’s not Rudy Gobert good. We just saw Nikola Jokic average 26.3 points per game on 62.4% True Shooting against a two-time Defensive Player of the Year at his position. Jokic just hit the game winning shot in Game 7 over the outstretched arms of the best rim protector of this generation. Jokic is THAT DUDE, and I don’t think Zubac can do the yeoman’s work that Gobert just did. Montrezl Harrell and JaMychal Green don’t have a chance in hell.

I can’t say anything for sure. Speculating too heavily would be malpractice on my part. Murray didn’t look to have the same explosiveness and quick twitch movement he played with for the first six games of the series after he took that inadvertent knee from Joe Ingles.

If he isn’t the same Murray in the second round, the Clippers will probably dominate the Nuggets. They don’t have enough high level scoring threats offensively to match LA’s two-way play. Unless Michael Porter Jr. looks like Paul George more than Paul George looks like Paul George, then it’s difficult to point to any one player outside of Jokic and Murray who can score consistently.

We have collectively heard nothing about Will Barton. Nothing about his health, his status, whether he’s planning to reenter the bubble or not. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was waiting to see if the Nuggets were going to advance in this series to know whether he’d need to make it back for a second round series. Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s not close to healthy. That knee has been bothersome for awhile.

Whatever the case may be, Barton will almost definitely be out for the first two games. Denver will play Thursday night for Game 1 and Saturday for Game 2, and it’s unlikely Barton would have cleared quarantine by that point. Tack on another game for him needing to showcase that he’s healthy when he clears quarantine before stepping anywhere near a playoff basketball court.

The absolute earliest I could see a Will Barton return to action is Game 4, and that may depend on how the Nuggets are progressing in a series.

The starting lineup is going to be an intriguing decision for Michael Malone in Game 1. Against the Jazz, it was totally justifiable to start Monte Morris and Paul Millsap in my opinion. They were going to close games, and the Nuggets needed those two to stabilize the rotation and prevent other bench guys from playing a massive amount of minutes.

That will change against the Clippers who start four guys that are 6’7 or taller with two incredibly athletic and agile big wings. The three players who can be penciled into the starting lineup are Murray, Jokic, and Jerami Grant, who will be tasked with the most important role in this series outside of Denver’s two stars. The other two starting spots are debatable, but I think Malone will ultimately go back to Gary Harris and Paul Millsap in Game 1. He can always adjust if need be, and he likely will if Denver can’t stop LA.

Murray guards Landry Shamet (or Patrick Beverley if healthy). Harris guards Paul George. Grant guards Kawhi Leonard. Millsap guards Marcus Morris. Jokic guards Ivica Zubac.

As I mentioned just above, I think Jerami Grant will get the first crack at guarding Kawhi Leonard. Let’s be honest, though: the truth is, nobody can guard Kawhi Leonard, similar to how nobody can guard Nikola Jokic. Leonard is so strong but also so skilled at getting to the right spots with the perfect footwork to get the shot he wants to get. Grant has the right physical profile to match up with him and the instincts to go 1-on-1, but he will get got a few times for sure.

Grant will be the first option. If Harris is in the starting lineup, he and Millsap will guard Kawhi on cross matches frequently. Murray will switch onto Kawhi and be tasked with defending him in the post, something Murray has worked on a ton. Jokic may be dragged out onto an island against Kawhi at times, though the Nuggets would love to avoid that if they can.

If Torrey Craig is in the game and Grant is out, Craig will definitely guard Kawhi. He’s physical enough and lengthy enough to bother most shots and at least make Kawhi work a bit. Craig defending without fouling will be key. Michael Porter Jr. is also an option. The Clippers will hunt that matchup when Porter is out there because that’s how these things work. It would be a great time for Porter to remind everyone how athletic he is and defend without fouling because it would drastically change the series if he can stay on the court.

I doubt Beverley (or Shamet) spends as much time on Murray as one may expect. When the Clippers and Nuggets met in the seeding games, Murray was almost exclusively defended by Kawhi in half court situations. Doc Rivers is a smart coach, and he knows that Murray was one half of Denver’s elite offensive attack. Neutralizing him would be a big step in neutralizing Denver’s offense. We saw in Game 7 against the Jazz last night just how poor Denver’s overall offense can look if Murray isn’t at his best.

Can Murray keep up the elite production against the Clippers? I think he can. They have a ton of elite defenders, but as long as Murray can get his quad right, he has the skills and athleticism to create his own shot against anybody in the league. Royce O’Neale is no bum. He had the seventh highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus among small forwards during the regular season.

The Clippers will look to take away his three-ball and press up on him. That means he has to create those threes where he can but continue to attack the rim aggressively. If he stays efficient, Denver has a chance.

It’s pretty clear that the Nuggets will need to make the right cuts and hit open shots to win this series. If Game 7 was any indication, they have two legitimate threats to create their own offense. The Clippers are going to put potentially the defensive player of this generation on one of those options. They are going to double team the other option. That puts a lot of pressure on the other three guys on the floor to make the right plays, hit enough shots, and do what it takes to keep pace with a Clippers team that is also very good offensively.

Michael Porter Jr. will be a big part of this team hitting their ceiling. When he’s locked in, he’s an excellent shooter, three level scorer, and elite rebounder with the ability to push the ball up the floor and hit deep transition threes. The Nuggets are going to be the best version of themselves when they can consistently rely upon Porter to be that guy while Murray and Jokic continue to be awesome. Having three capable scorers is always better than having only two, and the more attention the opposition has to devote to Porter, the less they are devoting to everyone else.

I think the Nuggets need to be the best version of themselves to win this series, and that version involves Porter on the floor and being part of things on both ends. Whether it be Torrey Craig, or Paul Millsap, or PJ Dozier, or Gary Harris, or Monte Morris, those guys aren’t going to cut it as shot creators in this series. The Clippers have too much length and athleticism to rely upon any of those options super heavily. Porter has the potential to score no matter what the Clippers do against him. Even if they throw Kawhi or PG at him, his size and shooting touch on the wing are weapons for the Nuggets to utilize. If they can tap into that potential, all is not lost.

It’s a four-part plan:

  1. Jamal Murray must keep playing like a star. Nothing less will get it done. What he did against Royce O’Neale has to carry over against Kawhi Leonard and the rest of the Clippers defense. It’s a tough task, but it’s one that Murray needs to shoulder as a star.
  2. Nikola Jokic has to dominate Ivica Zubac. It’s clear that the Clippers are a better team with Zubac on the floor as a roll man in the pick and roll and protecting the rim on the other end. He’s really good at those things. He’s like Rudy Gobert lite. If Jokic scores over and around him like Gobert lite, then they may be forced into doing things they aren’t comfortable with as a defense that could open up layups and threes for teammates.
  3. Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig specifically have to be great in 1-on-1 defense. If other guys aren’t great, it’s understandable. Denver can send help. If Grant can’t hold up in 1-on-1 coverage, it’s a big problem. He’s the guy the Nuggets absolutely need to be able to hang. They can’t always send help to get the ball out of Kawhi’s hands. That will lead to dunks and threes for the rest of an elite group. If Grant and Craig can limit the high level production of Leonard and George, that’s a big step.
  4. Michael Porter Jr. has to evolve into what we think he can be. Without that, Denver doesn’t have the juice offensively to hang with the Clippers. It’s pretty cut and dry.

It’s a long shot. The Nuggets will be underdogs, and after battling in a seven game series against the Jazz and likely being without Will Barton, it seems like the Nuggets are at a great disadvantage. Still, this is why they play the games. The Clippers still have to prove they can outscore the Nuggets. They have to prove they can limit Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic as stars. They may not be able to do so.

We will see what happens. This is a great test for the Nuggets to evaluate themselves against a legit title contender. If Denver has title aspirations and confidence in this group, they very well may rise to the occasion.