As exciting as Denver’s first-round victory over Utah was, the fact that it took them seven games just to escape the initial stage of the postseason should have been an indication that they would struggle to get much further. That played out in Game 1 of their second-round series on Thursday. The Nuggets got absolutely blasted by the Clippers, 120-97.
Kawhi Leonard made it look easy on his way to 29 points. He could’ve reached the 40s or 50s, but the Clippers saw no great need to strain their superstar in such a mismatch. Denver may be able to put up a fight against Los Angeles later in the series, but the Nuggets are clearly still reeling from their exhausting Game 7 win over the Jazz. The Clippers, who have played once in the past eight days, were the fresher and more athletic team. It showed in Game 1. Now the Nuggets will need to come up with a response in time for Saturday’s Game 2.
The Nuggets have no answer for Kawhi
This isn’t to say that the Nuggets lack good defenders. Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig and Gary Harris are quite good and match up well with Leonard on paper. The game tape told a different story. Leonard’s raw totals don’t do him justice. If he’d wanted to score 50 in this game, he easily could have. He got to his spots so easily in this game that he shot 75 percent from the field. Nobody is going to keep Leonard off of the board entirely, but opponents need to at least make him work for his points.
Denver couldn’t, and it speaks to the weakness of their team defense right now. The Nuggets have no rim-protection, as Nikola Jokic, though far from perfect on the perimeter, has always been a better hedge-and-show defender than a true center on that end of the floor. Denver’s help-side defense was laughable, and had Kawhi played for assists, a double-double would have been more than possible. Defending Kawhi Leonard isn’t a one-man job. Denver failed as a team in Game 1, and without an obvious adjustment, they are likely going to be in for several more performances like this before the series ends.
Jamal Murray isn’t healthy
Jamal Murray’s underwhelming Game 7 stats could have been written off as a fluke. He was tired, and bad shooting nights happen. But his inability to generate space in Game 1 against the Clippers, especially with an injured Patrick Beverly defending him for much of the night, was one of the biggest reasons Denver struggled to score. His 5-of-15 shooting night just isn’t enough against an opponent this good.
In theory, Murray should be able to find shots against the Clippers just as the Dallas guards did. Though Beverley makes this harder, the Mavericks hunted lesser Clipper defenders through switches to get their points. Lou Williams, Reggie Jackson and Landry Shamet are easy marks. That Murray couldn’t take advantage suggests that the thigh injury he aggravated on Tuesday will remain a problem in this series.
So much for the Michael Porter Jr. experiment
Denver could live with Michael Porter Jr.’s defense in the seeding games, when he was giving them close to 30 points every night. Their tolerance for it slipped in the first round, as his offense came back down to Earth. He lost his starting slot in Game 4 and played only 17 minutes in Game 7. Game 1 against the Clippers was his worst postseason appearance yet.
Porter shot 2-of-9 from the field, with his points all coming with the game out of reach. The Clippers hunted him mercilessly in pick-and-roll switches, and he offered little resistance. Porter is a rookie. What he does in first playoff run isn’t the be-all and end-all. But unless he starts scoring at the clip that made him an All-Seeding Games player, he shouldn’t be on the floor in this series. He has no utility on defense.