Back in October of 2017, the Denver Nuggets opted to reward Gary Harris with a lucrative contract on the heels of a promising third year in the league. Harris, a former standout at Michigan State, put forth a few career-best marks that season — 14.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 2.9 assists while connecting on 42 percent of 4.5 threes a game — and as a result, Denver gave him a four-year, $84 million extension.
He made that look quite good the following year, upping his scoring to 17.5 a night while hitting a tick under 40 percent of his threes, and then, injuries began to hit. The list of knocks he’s picked up in his career have particularly escalated since December of 2018, when he picked up a pesky hip injury against the Raptors. He’s had plenty of highs and lows, with his defense long being a bright spot, but he’s struggled to consistently look like the guy who got paid a pretty penny.
Another hip injury held Harris out of the Nuggets’ seeding games and the team’s first five postseason tilts in the NBA’s Orlando Bubble, and when he returned to the series against the Utah Jazz, he very much looked like someone who hadn’t played in five months because of a mix of a pandemic and an injury. And then, after an unspectacular first game against the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round, something clicked. Here’s some numbers:
Harris, quite literally, went from the least-efficient shooter on the team by both effective field goal percentage and True Shooting percentage to the most-efficient shooter on the team by both metrics. Only Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic had better net ratings in games 2-7 against the Clippers than Harris, and only Jokic had a better offensive rating. He is not the reason that they were able to beat a Clippers team that a whole lot of people picked as the title favorites, but man, did it help Denver a lot that Harris started to look a whole heck of a lot like he did on his best days, giving them a very solid contributor on offense and a floor-spacing threat who will use his 6’4, 210 pound frame on the other end of the floor to pester opposing players.
That defense, by the way, was something to behold. Harris is a Michigan State player in every positive sense of the word, something that Paul George in particular learned the hard way. According to NBA.com‘s matchup data, Harris was the primary defender against George in each of Denver’s wins in that series. Only once did George score more than three points in a game in that matchup, and he shot 5-for-15 against Harris in those games.
With Will Barton out due to an injury, Harris being able to give the team even 80 percent of what he is at his best is a really big boost. We saw that against the Clippers, but unfortunately for the Nuggets, that hasn’t exactly been the case in the conference finals against the other team that normally calls Staples Center home.
Harris has gone back to being the guy who struggled in his first three postseason games. His net rating of -13.5 is the second-worst on the team, ahead of only Jerami Grant, and his offensive rating of 101.5 is the worst among Denver’s players. That’s also the case for his eFG% (34.8 percent) and TS% (37.7 percent). He’s scoring 4.5 points in 25.2 minutes per game while hitting 26.1 percent of his shots from the field and 36.4 percent from three.
In the ultimate “it’s a make or miss league” statement, the big difference between that hot stretch against the Clippers and his ongoing struggles against the Lakers has been Harris’ inability to hit the relatively easy shots from deep. He’s still competing his ass off on defense, because I simply do not think he can fathom doing otherwise, but his three-point shooting, particularly on shots deemed “wide open” (the closest defender is 6+ feet away), hasn’t been up to par.
On one hand, yes, you are right, making these sorts of statements about 36 total shots over 10 games is risky. On the other, it’s not like he’s getting buckets elsewhere, either — those two types of triples made up 55.5 percent of Harris’ field goal attempts in the games against the Clippers and 47.8 percent of his shots against the Lakers. This is what he’s being asked to do more than anything else on offense and the shots just are not going in. And besides, it’s not like the other shots he’s been given are going in, either, as Harris is 2-for-12 (16.7 percent) on two-point field goal attempts against the Lakers, too.
Being able to give the Nuggets something is huge. Keeping defenses honest means that the guy who has primarily guarded him in this series, Danny Green, is unable to provide the help defense against Jokic and Jamal Murray that he is so good at providing. Green (or whomever is checking Harris at the time) would have to be more willing to stay home, giving Jokic more space to orchestrate the Denver attack and Murray more room to attack when he decides he’s going to take over a basketball game. For how good those two are, the Nuggets are at their best when they have a few options on offense, if only because Jokic can somehow find anyone who is even a little open without trying all that hard. Harris needs to give them that sort of option.
Denver has come back from a pair of 3-1 series deficits this postseason, an absolutely stunning accomplishment that makes the uphill battle they currently face against LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and co. seem ever so slightly less insurmountable. Still, to make lightning strike a third time, Harris looking like the guy who deservedly got a big money extension is crucial. We know he has it in him, as evidenced by what he did against the Clippers, and if he shares the sense of urgency we’ve seen out of his team when their backs have been against the wall in the playoffs, Saturday night’s Game 5 will be quite the platform for him to rise to the occasion.