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Wednesday, September 02, 2020

L.A. Clippers Versus Denver Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 L.A. Clippers (49-23) vs. #3 Denver (46-27)

Season series: L.A., 2-1

Denver can win if…Jamal Murray continues to set playoff scoring records, Nikola Jokic dominates in the paint, and the Nuggets are able to contain Kawhi Leonard down the stretch of close games. Also, the Nuggets must display more defensive consistency than they did during the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.

L.A. will win because…The Nuggets have no answer for Kawhi Leonard's all-around brilliance. Leonard has no discernible weaknesses. He scores, rebounds, passes, and defends at an elite level. Not only does he score prolifically, but he can score in a variety of ways--including the midrange game that "stat gurus" deride but that historically has been a vital ingredient for championship teams; Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard each won multiple championships and multiple Finals MVPs as midrange assassins. LeBron James did not start winning titles until he was willing and able to make midrange shots against elite competition in the playoffs. Overeliance on three point shooting leads to high variance results, and dominant post players can be double-teamed (or fouled if they are subpar free throw shooters), but it is almost impossible to effectively double team a midrange assassin without giving up wide open high percentage shots to the midrange assassin's teammates.

Leonard led the Clippers in scoring (32.8 ppg), rebounding (10.2 rpg), assists (5.2 apg), and steals (2.3 spg) while shooting .538 from the field as the Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 4-2 in the first round. He did not shoot well from three point range (.294) but the Clippers still shot .404 from three point range overall in no small part because he attracts so much defensive attention. Leonard's offensive game--particularly at playoff time--is a less flashy but no less effective version of the offensive games of Jordan and Bryant. Leonard attacks the hoop when possible, kills from the midrange with consistency, takes the shots that he wants (not the shots the defense wants him to take), makes key three pointers even if his percentage is not great, and he is a premier fourth quarter closer.

There are still three rounds left in the playoffs, but if Kawhi Leonard leads the Clippers to the title and wins the Finals MVP he will become the only player in pro basketball history to win a championship and a Finals MVP with three different franchises. Leonard does not consistently post dominant regular season statistics, but he is assembling a postseason resume that could elevate him to Pantheon status. His career is unusual from the standpoint that Pantheon players tend to dominate in both the regular season and the playoffs, but if winning championships is the ultimate goal and Leonard ends up winning as many (or more) championships during this era as any of the greatest players who are his contemporaries then how could Leonard not be ranked as a Pantheon-level player? Again, there is a lot of basketball left to be played, but I am very impressed by Leonard's consistent excellence and his ability to elevate good teams to the championship level.

Paul George put up decent scoring, rebounding, and assist numbers versus Dallas (18.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 4.0 apg) but he shot just .358 from the field and he looked out of sorts for much of the series. He has publicly stated that he has been battling some mental health issues while in the "bubble," and he deserves credit for speaking candidly about those issues. I certainly hope that his mental health improves and stabilizes. That being said, and I will choose my words carefully here, if he had not mentioned his mental state publicly and we just looked at his numbers, his performance to this point is not substantially different from his career playoff averages (20.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.9 apg, .417 field goal shooting). It is fair to say that he has not proven that he could be the first option on a championship team, and he has a great opportunity playing alongside Leonard to prove that he can be the second option on a championship team.

Other things to consider: There will be a quick two day turnaround for the Nuggets from their game seven win over Utah to game one of this series. Game one winners tend to win playoff series, and this game one figures to be an uphill struggle for Denver, though of course that is somewhat mitigated by the absence of home court advantage in the "bubble."

The Clippers have several players who have hothead tendencies, including Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, and Marcus Morris. In a close game, a technical foul or a flagrant foul could be the difference, so if the series is competitive then the behavior of those players bears watching. Harrell could have easily been fined or suspended for his racist remarks directed toward Luka Doncic, and Morris is fortunate that he was not fined or suspended for his double karate chop against Doncic; Morris was assessed a flagrant foul 2 and automatically ejected from game six, but the Clippers survived without him.

I am picking L.A. in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM



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