The Denver Nuggets, facing a 3-1 series lead against perhaps the most talented team in all of basketball, capped off their second-straight comeback from that exact deficit. For the first time in NBA history, a team has come back from that hole in the same postseason, and on Tuesday night, Denver earned that distinction with an emphatic 104-89 win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
It was shocking in just about every sense of the word — the Clippers, once again, got out to a double-digit lead, then the Nuggets rallied back, playing like a team that looks like it can win a championship in a second half where just about everything went right. Here are three takeaways from the game, which capped off a comeback that I still can’t fully believe happened.
1. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are superstars
Teams that want to win are oftentimes defined by their superstars. As this series emphatically showed, Denver has a pair of superstars who can not only play, but will scratch and claw and fight for every single thing with the hopes of coming out on top in every game they play.
The Clippers, a team that was ostensibly built around its suffocating defense, had absolutely zero answers for Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray in Game 7. The former was about as deadly a quarterback as you’ll see this side of Patrick Mahomes. His 16 points were perfectly solid, yes, but the big man ripped down 22 rebounds and just made Los Angeles’ frontcourt submit to his will on the glass. More impressive we were his 13 assists. Even when he did not make a pass that directly led to an assist, Jokic was finding dudes in perfect places and putting them in positions to do something, whether it was score or make something happen on their own.
WIN or GO HOME GAME 7 on ESPN pic.twitter.com/5ohnXJ49yJ
— NBA (@NBA) September 16, 2020
Jokic was in complete and total control of every single thing that have been around him. He is the team’s metronome, possessing qualities that you normally expect out of guys like LeBron James or Chris Paul. Instead, we are talking about the 7-foot tall center of the Denver Nuggets. Jokic is nothing short of a marvel, and I hope he never stops doing stuff like this. This was him rubbing salt in the wound by going deeper into his bag than Santa does for the last kids he visits on Christmas Day.
I can't get over how ridiculous this pass was by Jokic pic.twitter.com/m5SbwIW26H
— Mohamed (@MoeSquare) September 16, 2020
And then, there is Murray, who has been just a straight up monster all postseason. He has brought an edge that works in perfect balance with the steadiness that Jokic brings. In Game 7, he was an inferno, scoring 40 points on 15-for-26 shooting and hitting six of his 13 threes. He doled out five assists and ripped down four rebounds, too.
This is a guy who is just oozing confidence right now. Every single time that Jamal Murray steps onto the basketball court, he is convinced that he is going to outplay everybody else on the other team. And if he does not, he is, at the very least, going to play his behind off. Denver is better for it, and he is, slowly but surely, earning the title of being a superstar in this league.
WIN or GO HOME GAME 7 on ESPN… 8:47 to play. pic.twitter.com/FE8eqyjIdp
— NBA (@NBA) September 16, 2020
"MURRAY PUTS UP A 3… BANG!"
WIN or GO HOME GAME 7 on ESPN pic.twitter.com/iosueYH4e6
— NBA (@NBA) September 16, 2020
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in Game 7 vs. Denver: a combined 24 points on 10-of-38 shooting (26.3 percent) and 4-of-18 shooting on 3s (22.2 percent) in 82 minutes.
— Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) September 16, 2020
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in the 4th quarter of Game 7:
— Shaker Samman (@ShakerSamman) September 16, 2020
Not great! We’ll get to them in a sec. Before then, let me just say the following:
2. The Nuggets rule
A bit of a mea culpa here: I thought that the Clippers would sweep this series. I did not think that Denver, coming off of an all-out war with the Utah Jazz, would have the horses or answers for any of the various things that L.A. could throw at them.
But my God, does Denver have heart. This is a team that steps onto the floor every single night and wants to make sure that the other team has as miserable a basketball playing experience as they possibly can. Their two stars are fantastic, of course, but up and down their roster are a bunch of guys who want nothing more than to fight whenever they are on the floor.
Paul Millsap has lost a step, but he will battle. Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig are not afraid to mix it up with anyone. Gary Harris, god bless him, had a brutal year in which he battled injuries and looked like a shell of himself, but was fantastic as the Nuggets battled back in this series and competed like hell on the defensive end of the floor, while simultaneously hitting some shots that just did not fall for him during the regular season for one reason or another. The guys off the bench — Mason Plumlee, Monte Morris, Michael Porter Jr. — understand what they have to do when they step onto the floor.
Michael Malone absolutely deserves a ton of credit for what he has built. He has built a team that has this unshakable belief in itself and will not go down without a fight. As a result, this group has so much swagger right now, and even if the Lakers might be a better team on paper, it’s really hard to bet against them being able to put away this team. Denver is such a wonderful story, especially when you consider how close they came to making the conference finals last season. They got a chance to atone for that, and when that opportunity presented itself, they made the best of it.
3. The Clippers are in for one heck of an offseason
No team made a bigger splash last offseason than the Los Angeles Clippers. They pulled off an absolute monster deal, giving away basically every single thing that they could trade in order to acquire Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder. As a result, they were able to sign the biggest name in free agency, convincing Kawhi Leonard to come home to Los Angeles after winning a championship with the Toronto Raptors. Between those two, a team that was very good last year, a coach that knew how to win a title, and a front office that was willing to do whatever it took to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy, this team seemed preordained to make some serious noise in the postseason.
And then, they spent an entire season never quite looking like the team that they could be at their best. We saw plenty of glimpses of that, but we never quite saw enough to, in retrospect, justify thinking that this was the best team in basketball. They were capable of earning that distinction, they just never did it quite enough. As for their stars, you saw those numbers earlier in the post, but Leonard had 14 points on 6-for-22 shooting with six rebounds and six assists in Game 7, while George had 10 points and hit two of his 11 attempts from three.
The Clippers got punched in the mouth for three games in a row, and whenever their opponent threw that punch, they completely folded. Los Angeles has never made the conference finals, and despite this being perhaps the best opportunity to ever do that in franchise history, they came up short once again.
I have no idea exactly what is going to happen next, but considering how high the expectations are from ownership on down in that organization, it seems like something has to go down. I don’t want to speculate on anyone’s job security, but Doc Rivers, for all the good he has done in that organization, might have to answer some questions after how this went. Montrezl Harrell — who was not all that good during the playoffs — is a free agent, as is Marcus Morris. Leonard and George, a pair that was supposed to get them to the promised land and were as guilty as anyone for their Game 7 collapse, both are free agents after next season.
It’s a weird time in L.A., and despite most teams having their eyes on the 2021 offseason, the Clippers are a team that seems ripe for doing something big before next year tips off.