Clippers-Nuggets Series Preview: Key matchups, the X-Factor, and prediction

The Los Angeles Clippers were pushed further than most expected by the Dallas Mavericks, thanks to the brilliant play of Luka Doncic. Whether it was a wake up call for the Clippers, or simply getting rust off, the Mavericks provided a scare for the Clippers in the first round.

The No. 3-seeded Nuggets are more evenly matched with the second-seeded Clippers, at least by conventional measures. They have Nikola Jokic, their own Eastern European superstar and one of the greatest passing big men ever, and a stellar pick-and-roll partner in Jamal Murray, who is blossoming into a star under the bright lights of the playoffs.

Denver is playing its best basketball at the perfect time, rallying from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Jazz in a grueling seven games. Murray is becoming the sidekick who Jokic has so desperately needed the past two seasons.

As for the Clippers, well they’re rested and hoping to get healthy. Patrick Beverley, who missed the last five games with a calf injury, is expected to play in Game 1, and that’s good news for the Clippers. When fully healthy, the Clippers are nearly unbeatable this season (11-1 record).

Before we dive into the series preview, take a look at the statistical profiles of the two teams in the 3 regular season matchups.

Offensive rating
Defensive rating
Net rating
Rebound percentage
Assist percentage
Turnover percentage

Biggest Clippers question: How do they contain Nikola Jokic?

The Clippers are the heavy favorite for good reason, but a team like the Nuggets are built to make life difficult for them. The only flaw the Clippers have is their center position. Zubac is serviceable, but the skill gap between he and Jokic is massive.

Montrezl Harrell is arguably the best second unit big man in the league. But for as big as the skill gap is between Zubac and Jokic, the height difference between Jokic and Harrell is even greater.

In the regular season matchups, Zubac did do a decent job defending Jokic. He’s the one Clipper who can consistently bump Jokic off of his spots, making him catch the ball further out and closer to the 3-point line.

Zubac did a nice job of contesting Jokic’s attempts out of post-ups over the three regular-season matchups, blocking him a couple of times and altering a half-dozen or so other shots.

The Nuggets will counter by pick-and-popping with Jokic and dragging Zubac to the 3-point line, a tactic that’s similar to what the Mavericks did whenever Zubac defended Kristaps Porzginis or Maxi Kleber. That tactic got Zubac benched late in the series. I’m not sure the Clippers can afford for that to happen in this series against Jokic.

The Sixth Man of the Year version of Montrezl Harrell easily scored on Jokic in the regular season, but that version of Harrell hasn’t shown up in the bubble yet. And Jokic salivates at the idea of seeing Harrell guarding him in the post. So if Harrell isn’t scoring, then he becomes a liability in this series when Jokic is on the floor.

Zubac is important in this series. He has to stay out of foul trouble. The Clippers need his defense against Jokic, rim protection against the Nuggets’ cutting and slashing, and defensive rebounding against one of the league’s best rebounding teams. The Clippers can live with Jokic’s 3-pointers as long as he isn’t pounding them in the post and finding shooters and cutters as the Clippers double-team and scramble.

Doc Rivers has talked about Zubac matchups and Harrell matchups all season. This is a Zubac matchup.

Biggest Nuggets question: How to balance offensive/defensive rotations against Kawhi and PG?

Despite their pedestrian defensive metrics, the Nuggets have the individual defenders to make the Clippers’ perimeter players work a bit for their offense. Jerami Grant, Gary Harris and Torrey Craig are all above-average defenders, with Grant and Harris probably rating better than any perimeter defender the Mavericks have. Those two will get the call against Leonard and George, respectively.

Grant, in particular, has the length and athleticism to bother Leonard. Grant’s shot-blocking ability allows him to contest Leonard on drives at the rim and make him adjust his release point on his patented midrange pull-up shot.

He did an impressive job on him during the regular season, holding Leonard to 4-of-14 shooting (28.6 percent) across the teams’ three matchups. The Nuggets will have to mirror their minutes closely, with Harris and Craig checking Leonard whenever Grant is resting.

The Nuggets have shown they will load up against Leonard, packing the paint and betting they have the size, length and foot speed to rotate out to Clippers shooters in the time he kicks a pass to them. Denver will likely double and trap Leonard, when possible. Playing him one-on-one, especially when the defender isn’t Grant, will be a death note.

Harris and Craig are important wing defenders with size, but it’s an offense-defense trade-off. The Nuggets need to score — you’re not getting into an 80-78 slog with these Clippers.

Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris, two scorers that have started and played well at times in the bubble, are keys parts of that. Defensively, however, they can be liabilities, especially against options like George, Lou Williams and Marcus Morris Sr.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone will have to strike the right balance. He started Paul Millsap, Craig and Morris against the Jazz late in the series, but it seems more likely he goes with Grant and Harris over those three.

This is a matchup in which missing starter Will Barton, a solid two-way wing who is out with a knee injury amid an unknown timetable, will hurt.

Most of Denver’s wing rotation has a weakness on one side of the floor, and the Clippers will surely look to attack that on either end by targeting weaker defenders or ignoring non-shooters.

Key Matchup: Jamal Murray vs Kawhi Leonard

This is not the typical matchup, a scoring guard vs an elite two way wing. But Murray vs Leonard could define the series.

Murray needs to be just as good, if not better than he was in round 1. Jokic will be the primary scoring option in this series, but Murray needs to be in the 30 point total every night if the Nuggets have a chance in the series.

Leonard’s defense on Murray will dictate how far this series goes. If Leonard decides to be the defensive player of the year version of himself, the Nuggets are out of here in 5 games. His height, strength and quick feet can overwhelm Murray, stifling half of the Nuggets offense.

X-Factor: Patrick Beverley’s Health

The Clippers need Beverley back — like, now.

The defensive decline from Beverley to Williams and Reggie Jackson is perhaps the steepest at any position on the roster. The Clippers can’t replicate his ball pressure, switch-ability, tenacity or rebounding from the point guard spot.

Don’t expect Beverley to be the primary defender on Murray, especially early on in the series as he works his way back from injury. But his ability to help on drives and crash the defensive glass make him valuable.

The Clippers are just 14-12 without Beverley this season. His absence hurt them against the Mavericks, with one fewer option to deploy on Doncic and one fewer option to stick on Burke or Seth Curry, who looked like borderline All-Stars against the Clippers’ other guards.

If Beverley is back for Game 1 or 2, his presence could tilt this series heavily in the Clippers’ favor. If he misses half, most or all of the series, the Nuggets can exploit the Clippers’ lack of defensive depth on the perimeter.


There is a reasonable case to be made that the Mavericks, with the superior star and a much better net rating, are better than the Nuggets.

The Clippers eliminated Dallas in six games, decidedly winning in three of the four victories (Games 3, 5 and 6) and losing a nail-biter on a historic shot from Doncic(Game 4). The series could have easily been five games. (With a healthy Porzingis and Doncic, it probably goes seven, though.)

The Nuggets just don’t pose the same matchup problems. The Clippers can blanket Murray with Leonard, George and Beverley. Jokic is a matchup nightmare for the Clippers, but he is not the player that you expect to dominate the pace of play for a 7 game series. He will put up roughly 25-12-8 for the series but it won’t be enough.

Jokic won’t be able to match Leonard shot for shot down the stretch of games. Murray has that ability but can we trust him to do so against the elite defenders the Clippers have? Murray might be able to in a game — or two, max — but not for a full series.

Denver has the firepower to push this series to six. But its defense remains a question mark. Can the Nuggets contain the league’s best offense, with two elite wing scorers, over seven games? Six? Five?

The Jazz tried to draw Jokic into the fray with ball screens for Donovan Mitchell. The Clippers have Leonard, George and Williams to relentlessly attack Jokic from all angles.

My guess for the series is that Denver’s defense isn’t good enough, particularly in crunch time. Jokic, Murray and the Nuggets’ top-five offense should be enough to win a game, maybe even two.

But there is a stark gap between these two teams — on both ends. Barring another uninterested start from the Clippers, this series should be over relatively quickly.

Clippers in 5

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