After getting run off of the floor in Game 1 of the series, the Nuggets bounced back in Game 2 with an incredibly impressive showing to beat the Clippers and even the series at 1-1. Many, including myself, felt after the opener that Denver was in serious trouble, but their turnaround in Game 2 was night and day, particularly on the defensive end.
With Game 3 looming on Monday night, it seems like we might have a much more competitive series on our hands than initially thought, but the expectation is that the Clippers will come out aggressively in Game 3 to reassert themselves as the dominant team in the series. That means Denver has to match their energy level from Game 2 and lean on some of the lessons learned from their game plan’s success — along with being ready for L.A. adjustments — to attack the Clippers on both ends of the floor. Here are three keys for the Nuggets as they look to shock the Clippers again and take an improbable lead in this series.
1. Continue applying defensive pressure to Kawhi Leonard
The Nuggets didn’t hide the fact that they were gassed in Game 1 coming off a grueling seven game series with the Jazz, and they looked much better in Game 2 in terms of stamina and effort. The offensive output in the first quarter stole headlines, but it was the defense of the Nuggets that made the difference, particularly with what they did on Kawhi Leonard. After a dominant Game 1, Leonard went just 4-of-17 from the field for 13 points, with 10 rebounds and eight assists. Considering he hadn’t scored fewer than 29 in seven playoff games to that point, it was a wildly impressive defensive showing on him to make him look as uncomfortable as he did.
Now, no one expects Leonard to repeat that poor shooting performance even if Denver can replicate the same defensive strategy, but making him see different looks and see length and hands at all times is critical to the Nuggets chances of slowing him down. T.J. McBride of Mile High Sports offered a great detailed look at what Denver did defensively in Game 2, but the biggest thing was the pressure from Jerami Grant and Garry Harris, as well as a much improved effort from Paul Millsap, as they sent bigger, longer defenders at Leonard due to his ability to rise up and hit jumpers.
tHe nUgGeTs dOn't pLaY DeFeNsE pic.twitter.com/qIEhoJ7PJ7
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) September 6, 2020
The Nuggets defense did a really good job of pressing up on Leonard to make it more difficult for him to rise for those jumpers without having to feel their presence, and they were able to keep him off the free throw line and away from the rim. He’ll likely hit more shots than he did in Game 2 no matter what, but keeping Leonard out of rhythm and making him feel the defense is really the only shot at making him marginally inefficient. To do so, they’ll have to continue to play with incredible effort, not just on Leonard, but in chasing out to shooters when he kicks the ball outside when they trap or stymie his initial move. For a team not known for defense, the adjustments in Game 2 and the effort they showed was tremendous, but that has to show up every game.
2. Can guys around Murray and Jokic keep making shots?
The Nuggets couldn’t miss to start the game, but once the Clippers defense settled in, they made life very difficult on Denver. Happily for the Nuggets, they had built up enough of an early lead — and played good enough defense themselves — to make up for the cooling off that happened in the second half as they scored just 38 points. The Clippers have made clear that their goal is to make life difficult for Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray on the offensive end and dare anyone else to beat them. Those two got loose early but it was an absolute grind late. The good news in Game 2 was that Gary Harris was able to provide them with some timely three-point shots that kept the Clippers at arm’s length.
G came through in the clutch!
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) September 6, 2020
I wouldn’t expect anything different from the Clippers defense in Game 3, and if anything they’ll look to be more aggressive on that end in the first quarter. They’ll dare Harris and Millsap and Grant to knock down threes — the latter of whom struggled to be much of an offensive factor given the task of defending Leonard on the other end. Denver getting production from those guys is going to be crucial for the Nuggets offense to produce points consistently against this L.A. defense that will likely look to swarm Murray and Jokic early and often in this game.
3. Good Joker vs. Bad Joker
On both ends the Nuggets have to be able to at minimum match, if not outwork, the Clippers. They did that in Game 2 and it starts with their stars in Murray and Jokic. The former has been sensational this postseason, happily stepping into the spotlight and taking over when needed against Utah, but he can’t be expected to put up 50, 42, and 50 in three straight games this series. The big question is whether Jokic is willing to sustain the effort level needed, particularly on the defensive end, to keep Denver in this series.
Jokic is an otherworldly talent on the offensive end, and his rhythm on that end is all his own. From the Sombor Shuffle to off-hand passes, he does things to a beat few can hear and even fewer can move to. The patience to his game is necessitated, as he noted after Game 2, by his inability to run fast. Defensively, no one expects him to become a fearsome rim protector that deters opponents from entering the paint, but he has to be present, which isn’t always the case. Draymond Green, serving as an analyst on Inside the NBA for Game 1 of this series, broke down how Jokic’s passive nature on defense can sink the Nuggets team defense.
Draymond picking apart Jokic's defense pic.twitter.com/Sncmb0Rfmq
— Chris Montano (@gswchris) September 4, 2020
In Game 2 he wasn’t suddenly Gobert at the rim, but his activity level was much better, he cleaned the glass spectacularly to the tune of 18 rebounds, and when it was his time to rotate and contest at the rim, he was far more willing (as you can see in the video in the Kawhi section). A key for Jokic is staying out of foul trouble, because when he picks up early fouls it only exacerbates his issues of attentiveness and aggression on defense. He’ll become so concerned with foul calls that he will refuse to contest shots at the rim to stay on the floor for offense. That should be a focus of the Clippers, because it’s the easiest way to take him out of the game on that end almost completely, and Jokic has to be at once smart about contact but present in the paint to keep the Clippers from waltzing to the rim.