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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Resilient Nuggets Stun Clippers in Game Seven

Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is a problem. The Denver Nuggets proved to be an insurmountable and unsolvable problem for the L.A. Clippers after the Clippers took a 3-1 lead in their Western Conference semifinal series. The Nuggets overcame a double digit second half deficit to win game five to stave off elimination, but at that time it still seemed likely that the Clippers would close out the series. The Nuggets overcame a double digit second half deficit to win game six to stave off elimination, and suddenly the Clippers faced the pressure of a game seven without the usual benefits of home court advantage. The Nuggets overcame a double digit second half deficit to win game seven--and win convincingly, 104-89. You can argue about which team has more talent, but there is no argument about which team is mentally tougher and which team is more disciplined about following the game plan regardless of whether the point differential is +10 or -10.

Nikola Jokic was the best player on the court in game seven and he was also the best player in this series. In game seven, Jokic had 16 points, a game-high 22 rebounds, and a game-high 13 assists. He only shot 5-13 from the field, but he put his stamp on the game with his rebounding dominance and his pinpoint passing. As ESPN's Tim Legler masterfully showed when he broke down the game seven footage, the Clippers had no answer for the Nuggets' two man game with Jokic and Jamal Murray, mainly because of Jokic's tremendous decision making and peerless passing skills. Jokic gave the Clippers a simple, brutal choice on most possessions: Which way do you want to die? Do you want to die by a pass to the baseline cutter, a pass to the wing three point shooter, or a one legged runner by Jokic? Jokic kept asking the Clippers how they wanted it, and he kept giving it to them. By the fourth quarter of game seven, the Clippers looked like a mentally broken team, collapsing under the weight of defensive breakdowns, shots fired off of the side of the backboard, and careless turnovers.

Jamal Murray made headlines with his record setting scoring as Denver came back from a 3-1 deficit versus Utah in the first round, but you could argue that Jokic was the best player in that series as well, particularly after Jokic had 30 points, 14 rebounds, and four assists in game seven while Murray was limited to 17 points on 7-21 field goal shooting. Murray was outstanding in game seven versus the Clippers, pouring in 40 points on 15-26 field goal shooting. He is not only a gifted one on one scorer but also a key part of the two man game with Jokic. Jokic-Murray is the not the duo promoted the most by the NBA, but it is the duo playing the best in the 2020 playoffs.

While Denver deserves a full measure of praise for winning this series, this result is not the equivalent to a 16th seed in the NCAA Tournament pulling off an upset against improbable odds. The Nuggets posted the second best record in the Western Conference in 2019, and they finished with the third best regular season record in the Western Conference in 2020. This team has consistently ranked near the top of the league for the past couple years. Yet, there is no doubt that this is an upset considering the championship or bust expectations rightly placed on the Clippers after they acquired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Also, the Nuggets were an uninspiring 3-5 in the seeding games, while the Clippers went 5-3 to preserve the second seed in the Western Conference. Prior to the start of the playoffs, few if any people outside of Denver's locker room expected this team to beat the Clippers in a seven game series.

The Nuggets deserve a lot of credit. They won this series, even though the mainstream media take will likely insist that the Clippers lost the series because the Clippers not only had a 3-1 lead but also had double digit second half leads in each of the final three games. Who cares which team had what kind of advantage before the final buzzer? The goal is to be the first team to win four games, not the first team to build big leads. It has been said that if the Indianapolis 500 were the Indianapolis 400 then Mario Andretti might have won more of them than anyone; I am as big of a Mario Andretti fan as anyone, but I am sure that he would be the first to say that the point of that race is to lead the 200th (final) lap, not to lead the most laps or to to be the leader at lap 100 or lap 150. The Clippers' big leads do not prove that they were the superior team; the Nuggets' four wins prove that they were the superior team. The Nuggets may be the 2020 version of the mid-1990s Rockets, a two-time champion whose Coach Rudy Tomjanovich declared, "Never underestimate the heart of a champion!" Denver is the first team to recover from two 3-1 deficits in one postseason, and the first team to win six straight elimination games. 

What went wrong for the Clippers? It is fair to wonder how much the load management philosophy hindered the Clippers from establishing the rhythm and the espirt de corps needed to win a tough seven games series. Teams are built when playing tough back to back games, or when finishing out the fourth game in five days. Often--if not always--Kawhi Leonard sat out those games, and thus the Clippers never built the foundation of their team. They assumed that with all of their talented players on the court during the playoffs everything would just work out, but they never put in the work as a unit to make that into a reality.

The Raptors got away with load management last season, but in general load management is not a recipe for success. A championship team is a finely tuned machine that can withstand tough times; the Clippers often looked unfocused, and they lacked poise when the Nuggets came back in the second half of three straight games. It seemed like the Clippers expected the Nuggets to just succumb, and that the Clippers had no idea what to do when the Nuggets kept resisting. Load management is based on the idea that some games and some possessions are more important than others; once you start down that slippery slope, it can become difficult to convince a team to play hard all of the time. The expectation used to be that great players strive to play all 82 games; I am not sure when exactly that changed, but the San Antonio Spurs are often given credit/blame for load management, so it is worth noting that the Spurs have won just one title in the past 13 years after claiming four titles in nine years prior to embracing load management. Tim Duncan played in at least 80 games in six of his first 10 seasons (and he played all 50 games in the lockout shortened 1999 season), but he never played in 80 games in a season after 2007. 

Kawhi Leonard was supposed to be the best player in this series, but Jokic outplayed him, and you could even argue that Murray's impact matched Leonard's impact. In game seven, Leonard had 14 points on 6-22 field goal shooting, six rebounds, and six assists, looking nothing like the two-time NBA Finals MVP who dominated the 2019 NBA playoffs while leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise's first championship. In the second half of game seven, Leonard shot 1-11 from the field on contested shots. Leonard usually not only gets to his spots at his speed, but he usually converts a high percentage of those shots; against the Nuggets--particularly in the final three games of the series--he did not always get to his spots, and he was much less efficient than usual. Once the other Clippers realized that Leonard was not going to just save the day by himself, they looked tentative, shaken and scared in the second half of each of the last three games. In particular, Paul George--always a bit of an overhyped player (he should not have finished third in MVP voting last season)--fell apart, scoring 10 points in game seven on 4-16 field goal shooting, with several of his misses caroming wildly and threatening the safety of the unwary.

Toronto's second round loss to Boston indicated that the Raptors needed Leonard's star power to get over the hump--but the Clippers' second round loss to Denver indicated that perhaps Leonard needed a supporting cast based on grittiness and toughness as opposed to raw talent. The Clippers sans Leonard are more talented than the Raptors sans Leonard, but who would you take now in a seven game series?

It would have been so much better for the NBA if LeBron James had stayed in Cleveland the first time, if Kevin Durant had stayed in Oklahoma City, and if Kawhi Leonard had stayed in Toronto. Instead of great players pursuing the fantasy of finding the perfect sidekick or the perfect supporting cast, it would be wonderful to see great players following the examples set by Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki.

Perhaps Jokic and Murray will spend their whole careers chasing championships together instead of pursuing personal glory. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:15 AM



At Wednesday, September 16, 2020 8:55:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Watching the game it almost felt like the Clippers had no energy or urgency towards the end. They just looked lost. Going out with such a whimper, and no bang is so disappointing.

It really shows you how force of personality and a collective sense of urgency and purpose is so important. It was almost depressing watching a team die like this.

At Wednesday, September 16, 2020 8:59:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Sorry to double post. A lot of people blaming Doc and maybe it is his fault but the Clippers looked pathetic at the end. If you need a coach to get fired up for a game 7 I’m not sure a coach is going to make a difference. I must say Doc looks shell shocked on the sidelines though, someone needs to fire up, wow.

At Wednesday, September 16, 2020 10:40:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, most of the top teams have not showed up this postseason and it'll be a cakewalk to the title for the Lakers.

Leonard is definitely overrated a bit. He does have 2 rings, so that'll be what everyone basically remembers. But, just like everything else, context is needed. And while he did outplay James for the final 3 games of the 2014 Finals which is amazing, let's remember that guys like Iggy, Rondo, and Terry have also outplayed James in the playoffs. Leonard was still a role player in 2014 when SA won, and still 2 years away from making the AS team for the first time. And very fortunate GS was basically without Durant last year. Heck, Toronto barely made it out of the 2nd round and was down 2-0 in the ECF. A lot of luck was involved last year for them to win. He did outplay Giannis, but now Giannis is definitely not ready to go all the way as we see him flame again out in the playoffs.

George might be overrated some, but he definitely earned his 3rd place finish in MVP voting last year. Maybe a down year last year overall after the top 2-3, but that's not his fault. He put up big numbers. Maybe you could make a case for him only being 4th, and Jokic 3rd. But I'd take George's offensive game over Jokic's still, and George beats Jokic in a landslide on the defensive end as George was 1st team all-defensive last year.

At Wednesday, September 16, 2020 1:11:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

That's a pretty deep and talented roster that Kawhi is playing with.

At Wednesday, September 16, 2020 4:28:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

The Clippers Curse is real. They actually went full 2011 Heatles... minus two playoff rounds!

And we shouldn't forget. The Clippers actually did vote to cancel the bubble. They didn't want to play anymore. That may not be why they went out and rolled over after going up 3-1, but that could have been a factor in diminishing some locker room chemistry.

This pathetic turn of events goes to show that the Warriors' injuries in the Finals last year, and no LeBron James in the East helped the Raptors' chances at winning a ring.

Leonard did not have Duncan, Ginobili, Parker, or Popovich in his corner. Much less the Raptors when the chips fell down when he couldn't muster the Sugar K one more time.

As for Jokic. He might be the reincarnation of Bill Walton - the same impeccable passing skills, maybe a little bit less athletic and less of a defensive monster, but a little bigger and perhaps a better scorer.

I'm actually looking forward to the Lakers-Nuggets series, even though it wasn't what we were hoping for.

At Wednesday, September 16, 2020 5:58:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...


I agree wholeheartedly that context is needed. In addition to what you pointed out, Leonard being fresher in the playoffs as he sits out 20+ games a season, is necessary context. Just look at his first half and second half splits in these playoffs. Playing 40+ minutes every other night, is a lot harder than playing 33 minutes every 3-4 days. He's an amazing player no doubt, but comparisons to him and Lebron or Kobe or whoever else (let alone Jordan) are way off base. Imagine the energy and efficiency if Kobe or Jordan or Lebron only played 60 games a season.

I agree with David, that this attitude from a lot of star players to not shoot for 80+ games a season...is extremely poor. I get a player's health is paramount, but then that should be considered during contract negotiation. If you get paid max contract money...you need to perform like a superstar every game. "Max contract" guys like Chris Paul and Paul George and Joel Embiid...aren't max contract guys. Consistency and durability and work ethic make a max contract worthwhile.

I don't understand how you can still defend Paul George. He physically looked spooked. After the game, he kept repeating, "This is what you want. This is the pressure you want. This is what you want." As if he was trying to convince himself. In all honesty, he doesn't want it. Damian Lillard was spot on. PG is running from the grind. Word on the street is the Clippers collectively said, let's get out of the Bubble when meeting with NBA executives after the shootings in Milwaukee. I understand there are conflicted emotions. But, it is telling they were all too ready to jump ship. And yes, mental health is extremely important, so Paul George should speak up about it and his struggles. But, it's tough not to look at his mental struggles and not see the blame squarely on his shoulders. He invited ridicule with his childish taunts of Damian Lillard. For his braggadacio despite never winning anything. He brought that on himself.

I look at Jimmy Butler as the anti-Paul George. He's not as naturally talented as PG. He doesn't have that natural elite athletic and long body. He worked his ass off for everything he's gotten. And then he CHOSE the Heat and the authoritarian, grind-worthy regime of Riley and Spoelstra instead of teaming up with Lebron or Kawhi. People mocked him for going to the Heat and having the audacity to think he could lead a team to a championship.

If you watch this Heat team play, they're all pointing at each other and acknowledging good plays or nice assists. They give each other credit in post game interviews. And, they have each others' backs on defense. It's the same with Denver. Jokic softly rejected a reporter's question about Murray and then a separate one about Malone. His message to both questions, we did this as a team. Every single guy out there played a role in our success. He said it's not just me and Jamal. Or coach. It's a collective team effort. And...you know what. It absolutely was.

The Clippers...not so much. And yes, PG was in and out of the lineup this year. But, Butler missed time too and yet was able to build fantastic chemsitry and develop trust in his teammates as well as his teammates trusting him.

The Heat and Nuggets -- all to a man -- have consistently said throughout the season that their goal and focus is to win a championship this year. Postgame, when asked, Doc Rivers flat out said they failed as his goal for the team was a championship.

But when PG was asked about this season being a disappointment, he said, we're looking at this as the beginning.

PG is a buster. And, I stand by my assessment that the Clippers will regret trading all of their future away for a guy who not only doesn't have the mental fortitude to step up in big moments, but doesn't put in the hard work, AND is constantly injured. Oh, and he keeps popping off at the mouth too...

At Thursday, September 17, 2020 2:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


This was a strange series that defies simple explanations. The Clippers' talent and game plans were sufficient to take a 3-1 lead, and to take double digit second half leads in each of the final three games--yet the Nuggets won three straight to take the series. It seemed like the Clippers became fatigued mentally, physically or both. It is not clear exactly what happened or why.

There are many Doc Rivers critics and haters who have been waiting a long time for a moment like this so that they can jump out of the woodwork.

At Thursday, September 17, 2020 2:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


How is Kawhi Leonard overrated? Did he not deserve his Finals MVPs or his DPoY awards? Did he not deserve the All-NBA, All-Defensive Team, and All-Star honors he has received?

George is definitely overrated. There is no way that at any time he was the third best player in the NBA. His defense is good, but not as good as people suggest. On offense, he is an inconsistent shooter with any iffy handle, and he almost always disappears in the clutch. He is a below average rebounder for his size, and an adequate passer at best for a guard. George has a lot of physical talent, but he has not maximized that talent.

At Thursday, September 17, 2020 3:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, the Clippers have a talented and deep roster.

At Thursday, September 17, 2020 3:04:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't believe in curses.

I do believe that it is not a coincidence that many of the players and teams who were most vocal about not wanting to be in the "bubble" departed the "bubble" earlier than one might have reasonably expected.

Walton won championships at every level. I am not sure what championships Jokic won prior to joining the NBA, but he has yet to win his first NBA title, so I will hold off on Bill Walton comparisons.

I agree that Lakers-Nuggets could end up being entertaining and even reasonably competitive.

At Thursday, September 17, 2020 3:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with most of your criticisms of George. Regarding whether or not the Clippers will regret trading for him, the reports at the time indicated that Leonard would only sign with the Clippers if he could play with George. So, the price paid for George has to be considered in the context of whether or not it was worth it to do whatever it took to sign Leonard. If Leonard ever leads the Clippers to the title then I would argue that the price paid was worth it.

Clippers other than Kawhi Leonard talked a lot about being tough, but without understanding what toughness is. Flagrant fouls, trash talk, and social media beefs have nothing to do with toughness. Game plan execution under pressure proves one's toughness; everything else is irrelevant nonsense. The Clippers tried weak, silly methods to intimidate Doncic, and everything that they did backfired; the Clippers did not win that series based on toughness, but just based on talent and on having more playoff experience. The notion that anyone in the NBA is mentally or physically intimidated by Beverley, Morris, or Harrell is laughable. Beverley is scrappy but undersized. Morris is a nice role player, as is Harrell.


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