nikola-jokic-nuggets.jpg

Less than a week ago, the Los Angeles Clippers held a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets in their second-round series and were -3,500 favorites, according to William Hill Sportsbook. Oh, what a difference two games can make. The Clippers, after squandering double-digit leads in both Game 5 and Game 6 are now fighting for their postseason lives. On Tuesday, they will face the Nuggets in a winner-take-all Game 7

The Clippers are, of course, no strangers to playoff collapses. In almost five decades in existence, they have never reached the conference finals. This season, with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George onboard, was supposed to be different. As recently as last week, the Clippers were the odds-on championship favorite. But they’ve struggled to slow Nuggets star Nikola Jokic, and if they can’t on Tuesday, they’ll taste the bitterness of defeat yet again. Here’s everything you need to know about Game 7. 

Viewing Information

Date: Tuesday, Sept. 15 | Time: 9 p.m. ET
Location: Disney Wide World of Sports — Orlando, Florida
TV: ESPN I Live stream: fuboTV (try for free) 
Odds: Clippers -7.5 | Over/Under: 207.5 (William Hill Sportsbook)

This ain’t anyone’s first rodeo

The Nikola Jokic iteration of the Nuggets has played in four playoff series. The first three all went to a Game 7. Kawhi Leonard has played in four of them himself. This is Paul George’s fourth as well. Of the 19 players to have played at least a quarter in this series, only five have never participated in a Game 7: Montrezl Harrell, Ivica Zubac, Landry Shamet, JaMychal Green and Patrick Beverley. Beverley has been on the bench for a Game 7 in which he was injured. 

In other words, the moment probably won’t be too big for anyone here. The early jitters that tend to ruin the rhythm of Game 7s shouldn’t be an issue in this game. The best players on both sides have been there and done that, and that should make for a Game 7 that more closely resembles the first six games than the slogs we usually get at the end of a playoff series. 

Which star would you rather have? You might be surprised

There’s a safety in basing your Game 7 pick on something as simple as “who has the best player.” The last Game 7 Kawhi Leonard played in came down to this. 

But Jokic, like Leonard, is coming off of a game-winner in his last Game 7 appearance. 

Whereas Jokic matches Leonard in Game 7 winners, he tops him in overall Game 7 production. 

Leonard Game 7s Jokic Game 7s

PPG

22

26.7

APG

1.25

5.3

RPG

10

14

FG%

43.4

40.5

Now, the samples are tiny here, and the majority of Kawhi’s skew toward his younger, pre-superstar days. But Jokic has been just as good in this series, if not better. 

Leonard Games 1-6 vs. Nuggets Jokic Games 1-6 vs. Clippers

PPG

26

25.8

APG

5.8

5.5

RPG

9

12

FG%

47.4

53

Even the clutch numbers slightly favor Jokic, who is shooting 70 percent from the field in such situations to Leonard’s 53.8 this postseason. Kawhi is the better defender. He’s also the better overall player, in a vacuum. But under the specific circumstances of this game and this series, there is a legitimate argument in favor of Jokic as the best player in Game 7. If nothing else, this isn’t the sort of winner-take-all matchup that should come down to a single player’s dominance. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same

The bubble changes one of the fundamental truths of Game 7s: the home team almost always wins. Under normal circumstances, the home team wins around 80 percent of Game 7s. We’ve only had three Game 7s in the bubble, and the home team has won two of them. But a more accurate read on the lack of home-court advantage at large in Orlando might be the second round as a whole. Teams that would have been on the road in a normal postseason are now 17-5 in the second round of the postseason. Virtual fans don’t seem to make a difference. 

Where the Game 7s we have seen have matched their non-bubble counterparts have been in scoring. Just look at how scoring in those final games has compared to the rest of the series in which they took place: 

This is par for the course historically, and should matter even in a matchup with this much Game 7 experience. While jitters matter, effort and recognition are the biggest drivers of great Game 7 defense. Teams learn each other’s tendencies over the course of six games, so by the time they reach a seventh, there are no offensive surprises left. 

You’re hot then you’re cold

When the Nuggets get good Jamal Murray, they’re arguably the best team in basketball. The list of players that can average 47.3 points on 64.2 percent shooting across a three-game playoff stretch against a two-time Defensive Player of the Year is short, and that’s what Murray did in Games 4-6 against the Jazz. In the six games that followed? He fell to 19 points on 36.8 percent shooting. There were good reasons for that. He’s shooting only 33.3 percent against Patrick Beverley, a Second-Team All-Defense selection, and he’s dealt with injuries throughout the postseason. But this is, for the most part, who Murray is. He can be the best player in basketball for a week and hardly starting-caliber the next. 

We got glimpses of the best version of Murray when he broke out of his funk to shoot 9 of 13 from the field in Game 6, but the Nuggets need more than efficiency to win Game 7. They need volume. Can Murray, fresh off of another injury, muster 20-25 shot attempts in Game 7? Fortunately, the Nuggets can expect some regression from the Clippers in a key area. 

The Clippers have shot 46.2 percent on wide-open 3-pointers this series, That’s 6.4 percentage points above their regular-season average, but offenses can’t rely on open shots in a Game 7. Those are few and far between, and while neither team is new to the pressure here, it’s worth noting that nerves tend to make even the occasional ones that can be found harder. If the Clippers aren’t getting their typical production from behind the arc, they’re in trouble. 

‘Play six, trust five’

Pat Riley has a philosophy for the playoffs, and for Game 7s, that most teams tend to follow. “Use seven, play six, trust five.” While modern coaches tend to go a bit deeper onto their benches, the broad strokes apply. Teams trust fewer players with their season on the line. The Nuggets know who their seven are because they’ve already played a Game 7. Jokic, Murray, Gary Harris and Jerami Grant will play around 40 minutes apiece. Torrey Craig won’t be far behind. Mason Plumlee will spell Jokic. The scraps will be left to Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris

As for the Clippers, it’s a little more complicated. Leonard and George will be there. Beverley and Marcus Morris should be as well. Beyond them, it’s a crapshoot, or at least it should be. 

The Clippers have outscored the Nuggets by 42 points with Zubac on the floor in this series, but have been outscored by 29 points during Harrell’s minutes. Most of that Harrell deficit has come in fourth quarters, where Harrell has played more than twice as many minutes as Zubac. Doc Rivers trusts him, but the numbers say he shouldn’t. He offers no resistant to Jokic. Neither does JaMychal Green, but at least Green can stretch the floor and take advantage of Jokic’s defensive issues. Zubac can’t play 40 minutes. He’d foul out by halftime. But at a certain point, Rivers needs to reckon with the fact that Harrell isn’t the same player now that he was in March and adjust accordingly. 

He’s had a similar problem with Lou Williams, who is shooting only 36.8 percent from the field and 13 percent from behind the arc in this series. There’s obvious regression coming there, but there’s no guarantee it comes right away. It needs to if Rivers wants to justify his presence in crunchtime. The Nuggets have hunted him relentlessly in switches, as many other teams have done late in games all season. It’s the single easiest way to score against a team that employs three of the best defenders in basketball. Reggie Jackson hasn’t earned Game 7 minutes, but if Williams continues to struggle, Shamet is the obvious pivot. 

But the Clippers have had identity issues all season long. No Clippers lineup composed of players currently on the roster played more than 147 minutes in the regular season (making it the 55th-most used five-man group in basketball). If they don’t figure out who they are quickly, they’re going to get bounced by a team that has known all season. 

Prediction

The Clippers have been the better team throughout most of this series, a few collapses aside. They’ve outscored the Nuggets by 12 points in the series as a whole, and while their favorite status guarantees nothing, it signifies their superiority during the longer regular-season sample size. This won’t be the walkover most expected, but in a winner-take-all setting, the better team has the advantage even if that doesn’t come with home-court advantage. 

The Clippers should advance, but “should” is the operative word here and of their season as a whole. They should have been dominant, not fighting for their lives in the second-round. This team isn’t nearly as dominant as the basketball world justifiably expected. Even if they squeak past the Nuggets, a far greater challenge in the Lakers awaits them next round. 

Game 7 Picks

Who wins and covers every NBA Playoff game? Visit SportsLine now to see the uncanny predictions from an advanced computer model that’s up over $5,000 this season.    

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here