The Denver Nuggets strung together a pair of memorable performances, coming back from two consecutive double-digit deficits to even the series against the L.A. Clippers. On Tuesday evening, the Clippers still enter Game 7 as seven-point favorites against the Nuggets but, in a winner-take-all scenario, anything can happen.
With that as the backdrop, we’re highlighting three keys that could swing the result in Game 7, with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers waiting for the winner in the Western Conference Finals.
1. The Montrezl Harrell conundrum
Montrezl Harrell is a good basketball player. The 26-year-old big man won the NBA’s 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year award and, during the regular season, Harrell was both efficient and productive, averaging 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 58 percent from the floor. Those are strong numbers under any circumstances and, considering his impact on a top-flight team like the Clippers, it is easy to see why Harrell was a leading candidate and, eventually, the winner of a league-wide award.
In this series, however, it has been a struggle for Harrell, and that puts a tremendous focus on him in advance of Game 7. Harrell had to leave the Orlando Bubble for a family matter and, as a result, he missed the Clippers’ seeding games, only to return at the outset of the playoffs. On the whole, his counting numbers look just fine, especially when taken on a per-minute basis, but Harrell has been a notable weakness for L.A. against Denver.
Over the course of six games, the Clippers have outscored the Nuggets by 1.9 points per possession. That figure would be (much) more impressive if not for back-to-back collapses from L.A. but, in short, the Clippers have been the better team by point differential. With the exception of Reggie Jackson, who essentially vanished from the rotation and has only played 29 minutes in the series, Harrell has the worst on-off splits of any Clipper, and that is only backed up by the eye test.
The Clippers are being outscored by 11.3 points per 100 possessions in the 108 minutes with Harrell on the floor through six games. That translates to a -29 over 108 minutes and, in the midst of a close-fought series, the minutes with Harrell in the middle have been costly for the Clippers. Harrell is, quite easily, the more prominent player when compared to Ivica Zubac, but Zubac has been notably better in this series.
Broadly speaking, Doc Rivers might lean in the direction of keeping Harrell engaged. After all, he is a very strong player and Harrell has been a key cog for the Clippers all season long. In the crucible of a win-or-go-home scenario, however, it will be quite interesting to see just how long Rivers is willing to stick with Harrell. He is a shaky defender, especially when Nikola Jokic is on the floor, and Harrell isn’t bringing the same kind of offensive impact since returning from his extended pre-playoff absence.
Can Rivers really just remove Harrell from the rotation? Probably not, but he should be on a (very) tight leash given how the rest of this series has gone. If he plays too much, the pendulum may swing toward the Nuggets.
2. Can Denver’s supporting pieces make three-pointers?
The Nuggets were unbelievable offensively in the second half of both Games 5 and 6. It goes without saying that Denver’s comebacks were highly unlikely but, in addition to the “help” provided by struggles from the Clippers, the Nuggets scored 1.39 points per possession against a strong defense. Much of that can be attributed to the lights-out work of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, just has it has been throughout the season. Still, that duo can’t carry the entire load, and the Nuggets have to get something from supporting pieces.
While there are other ways to make contributions, one practical impact could be simply knocking down three-pointers. Members of the Nuggets not named Jokic and Murray are just 38-of-120 from three-point range in the series, converting at only a 31.7 percent clip. That isn’t fully damning but, if presented with the choice to accept that rate in Game 7, Doc Rivers would likely jump at the chance.
In the last two wins, though, Denver’s supporting cast is 12-of-33 from three-point range. That only jumps to 36 percent in that small sample but, in a “make or miss league,” one or two connections could mean the difference.
As noted above, the Clippers could play a shallower rotation and, in a Game 7, offense is often at a premium. It won’t be a breeze, but the Nuggets getting something from the likes of Michael Porter Jr., Monte Morris, Jerami Grant and Paul Millsap from long distance would go a long way toward pulling the upset.
3. Who’s the best player on the floor?
After winning the 2019 NBA Finals MVP on the way to a championship, Kawhi Leonard made a leap into rarified air. He is a tremendous player by any description and, with the experience of operating as a superstar at the highest level, it is exceptionally difficult to pick against Leonard. In this series, Leonard certainly hasn’t been the problem for the Clippers, averaging 26.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game on strong efficiency, but Nikola Jokic has also been outrageous for Denver.
Jokic’s numbers are predictably strong, both for the playoffs overall and this series specifically, but the All-NBA center put up 28 points, 14 rebounds and six assists per game while nailing big shot after big shot in the last two wins. It would be far too aggressive to suggest that Jokic is better than Leonard in a broader sense, but it is also entirely possible that he flashes enough to be the best player on the floor in a single game.
In a sense, it is far too simplistic to suggest that the best player in Game 7 will get the victory. That is especially true in a series that also includes a legitimate star in Paul George and a rising stud in Jamal Murray. However, the Nuggets likely need Jokic to throw a (near) perfect game to get a third straight win and, if Leonard plays at his absolute best, the Clippers should rightly expect to win.