The Denver Nuggets have grown quite accustomed to playing seven game series. But for once they didn’t need to go the distance, instead closing out the Portland Trail Blazers in six with a 126-115 win on Thursday.
“I love our team. I love every player in that locker room, one through seventeen,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We continue to find ways to win. Last year, this year, people don’t realize what we’re missing right now with injuries so I couldn’t be more proud of a group of players that I truly love coaching every single day.”
The Nuggets did it on the road, avoiding any clutch-time magic from Damian Lillard by holding the Blazers to just 14 points in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets felt the urgency coming into the game to get it done sooner than later, knowing they lost a Game 7 on their home floor to the Blazers two seasons ago.
“Nobody is trying to see Damian Lillard, one of the clutchest players ever, in a Game 7,” Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. said.
It’s been a remarkable run for the Nuggets, finding answers in unlikely places at every turn as they’ve navigated the last few months without two of their best players, Jamal Murray and Will Barton, who are both out injured. They of course have leaned on the presumptive MVP, Nikola Jokic, who was brilliant once again in sparking a 14-point comeback in the second half with 20 of his 36 points coming in the third quarter.
“That’s why he’s the clear cut MVP,” Malone said. “Because you can take anybody away from our team, if we have Nikola, you could put me, Wes Unseld, Ryan Bowen, Charles Klask, whoever you want out there, we’re going to find a way to compete because that’s how great he is.”
Asked how the Nuggets made up the second half deficit, Porter Jr. offered a simple explanation: “Getting stops and Nikola Jokic,” he said.
But it’s also been the role players, along with the rise of Porter Jr., that have buoyed the Nuggets. Porter Jr. set the tone early, scoring 22 points in an electric first quarter as Jokic dealt with foul trouble. Once Jokic settled in during the third quarter, the Nuggets got big shots and big plays from Monte Morris (22 points and 9 assists), Austin Rivers, Aaron Gordon and JaMychal Green.
“We got a lot of dudes that are tough players, man,” Porter Jr. said. “Like me, I had my moment in the first half and then I cooled off, I don’t think I scored [the rest of the game]. Then Jokic obviously took over, but the way Austin and AG had their moments, and Monte, J-Myke — we just have a lot of dudes that are capable.”
Jokic is the fulcrum, though, and became only the second player ever (Dirk Nowitzki in 2002 the other) to average 30 points and 10 rebounds on 50% shooting and 40% from 3 in a playoff series. And he got his 36 in Game 6 despite not scoring in the first quarter.
“The first quarter, I was not even that aggressive. I didn’t want to force it,” Jokic said. “Like why [try] to force when I have a really good scorer going? So why would I maybe make him cold or whatever, make him angry, so I can sacrifice myself a couple minutes or a quarter.”
Jokic and Lillard dueled throughout the series, with both putting together historic performances. But in Game 6, Jokic outscored Lillard 27-9 in the second half as the series slipped away from Portland. Lillard already endorsed Jokic for MVP multiple times, and reiterated his take after Game 6, but even took it so far to say he thinks Jokic is the caliber of star that could lead Denver all the way to the mountaintop this season.
“He’s everything for them,” Lillard said of Jokic. “I think if it was any year a guy like him, what he does for that team, could lead his team to a championship, it would be this year because of how open it is. There’s no favorite. In my eyes at least, I feel like anybody can get beat and anybody can go get it done. That’s why it’s even more disappointing for me because I felt like if there’s any year you can shoulder the load and go get one, it was this one. I definitely think he’s capable of it.”
The Nuggets move on from the first round for a third consecutive season, and will take on the second-seed Phoenix Suns in the second round. But after a run to the Western Conference finals a year ago in the bubble, the Nuggets aren’t content with just conquering Lillard and the Blazers.
“I just told our team this, hell of a win to come in here and win a Game 6 on the road is great. But we’re not satisfied, Malone said. “Our goal coming into the season was not to get out of the first round. We have much bigger goals.”
2021 NBA playoffs – What matters most in every second-round series
The NBA’s conference semifinals are in full swing. The Milwaukee Bucks just saved their postseason with a nail-biting Game 3 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz just put the LA Clippers in another 2-0 hole.
In Friday night’s matchups, the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks wrestle for command of their series in Game 3 while the Phoenix Suns look to grab a commanding 3-0 lead on 2021 MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.
How much do the Nets need James Harden, who is still sidelined with hamstring tightness? What’s the most impressive part of the Suns’ 2-0 series lead? What player or adjustment will decide the Jazz-Clippers series? Which potential Finals matchup would provide the juiciest storylines?
Our panel of experts is answering some of the playoffs’ biggest questions ahead of two massive Game 3s.
Fact or fiction: The Nets should be the favorites to win the NBA title, even if James Harden doesn’t play again this postseason.
Tim MacMahon: Fiction. Kevin Durant once again looks like arguably the world’s best player and Kyrie Irving is a proven championship-caliber sidekick, but my gut feeling is the Nets will need Harden to get past the 76ers and/or whoever comes out of the West. Nets GM Sean Marks obviously thought as much when he pulled the trigger on the picks-loaded deal to bring Harden to Brooklyn.
Kevin Pelton: Fiction. Harden’s absence is putting pressure on Brooklyn’s other stars to play huge minutes. After playing 44:35 in Game 1, Irving was on the court for 44:57 in Game 3. Durant played 40:06 and 42:52 in those two games, respectively. That might not be sustainable over three full rounds — especially given their own battles with injuries during the regular season.
Jorge Sedano: Fact. Despite all their lineup shuffling, the Nets had a league-best offensive rating of 117.3 this season. Interestingly enough, when Durant and Irving were on the court together without Harden, that number increased to 120.6. Couple that with Blake Griffin‘s reemergence and Joe Harris‘ steady shooting and it’s not out of line to think they can win it all without Harden.
Brian Windhorst: It’s fact. But it’s not a big fact. The Nets were basically a .500 team this season when Harden didn’t play. They have great talent and their role players have been strong thus far, but it’s hard to bet on them.
Royce Young: Fact. The reason is pretty simple: Even with a slew of talented superstar players remaining in the postseason, Durant is in a class of his own. He’s the best player playing right now, a complete matchup nightmare who impacts both ends of the floor. Harden or no Harden, Durant is going to efficiently dominate games.
What’s been most impressive about the Suns’ 2-0 lead over the Nuggets?
MacMahon: Chris Paul has been in complete control of the series so far, but he has dominated playoff series before, despite never having advanced all the way to the Finals. How Deandre Ayton would handle his matchup with MVP Nikola Jokic was the Suns’ biggest question going into the series. The 22-year-old Ayton has more than held his own. He has averaged 17.5 points and 10.0 rebounds while shooting 65.2% from the floor in the two wins. More importantly, Ayton has made life difficult on Jokic, who is 11-of-26 from the floor with only four assists when Ayton has been the primary defender on him, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
Sedano: It’s Paul. Let’s be real, there weren’t many out there who didn’t feel he was snake-bitten again after his injury in the first round. He battled through that and has regained his form to take a commanding 2-0 lead over Denver. His Game 2 performance was masterful. His 17-point, 15-assist, zero-turnover night was the first playoff game with 15-plus points, 15-plus assists and no turnovers since 2014. The player who accomplished that feat in 2014? Chris Paul. Before 2014, the last time it happened was 2008 … by Chris Paul.
Young: The poise of the young Suns. Paul is a weighted blanket for the rest of the roster, providing the security the Suns need in tight situations. But as steady as he has been — 26 assists to one turnover is absurd — the rest of the Suns’ youngsters have played their parts wonderfully. Ayton is up to the challenge against Jokic. Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson look comfortable in their roles. And Devin Booker appears built for any postseason moment thrown his way.
Pelton: Ayton’s defense against Jokic. Despite early foul trouble in Game 2, Ayton has just about matched the MVP minute for minute (Jokic has played four minutes with Ayton on the bench, per NBA Advanced Stats) and deserves the majority of the credit for holding Jokic in check as both a scorer (23 PPG on 47.5% shooting) and distributor (4.5 APG).
Windhorst: Phoenix’s depth. Paul has been otherworldly during the Suns’ five-game win streak and he’s got an incredible 53-4 assist-to-turnover ratio in that span. But in both games this series, the Suns have had five players in double figures. Ayton is playing the best ball of his life, Cameron Payne is electric off the bench and the Jae Crowder/Bridges 3-and-D combo has been perfect.
What has been the biggest surprise so far in 76ers-Hawks?
MacMahon: Just how dominant Joel Embiid has been, despite the meniscus tear in his right knee. It’s impressive to average 39.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the conference semifinals under any circumstances. It’s absolutely amazing to do it despite nursing a knee injury that put Embiid’s availability in question until just before the Game 1 starting lineups were announced. And he’s doing it against one of the NBA’s best defensive big men in Atlanta’s Clint Capela.
Windhorst: How good Embiid has been despite having a moderate knee injury. The idea that he’d play in Game 2, much less put up 40, seemed wild just a few days ago. That said, the way the Hawks played in the first half of Game 1, jumping out to a huge lead, was pretty surprising and deserves special mention.
Young: Embiid. Obviously, it’s not a surprise Embiid would play great in a playoff series. But under these circumstances, his health was the biggest question going into the series. It seemed admirable he was going to try to play through a meniscus tear, but how limited he might be, or the challenges he might face, was a key storyline. Instead, after two games, the only question around Embiid is, how on Earth are the Hawks going to stop him?
Sedano: How poorly the Sixers’ bench has played. Philly was a middle-of-the-pack bench scoring unit this season, but it’s been downright bad this series. (And the numbers would look a lot worse had Shake Milton not given the Sixers a huge boost in the second half of Game 2.) Their bench players all had a negative plus-minus in Game 1 and had zero points in the first half of Game 2 prior to Milton setting the tone. That isn’t a sustainable recipe for success.
Pelton: Besides Atlanta stealing Game 1 on the road, I’d say the performance of Kevin Huerter off the bench. Huerter has made more than half his 3-pointers (6-of-11) and is a perfect 8-of-8 from inside the arc, a big reason the Hawks are plus-12 with him on the court and minus-24 with him on the bench through two games.
What will most determine the winner of Jazz-Clippers?
MacMahon: Can the Clippers figure out a way to cool off Donovan Mitchell? LA has no chance in this series if Mitchell keeps scoring in the 30s or 40s efficiently. The Jazz aren’t as reliant on Mitchell as the Mavs were on Luka Doncic — and Utah is a much better defensive team than Dallas — so the Clippers aren’t going to survive this series if they never find a sustainable solution for the opponent’s go-to guy.
Sedano: Mitchell’s success — or lack thereof — will determine who wins this series. Particularly, how effective he is in the pick-and-roll. For the Clippers to succeed, they have to contain the perimeter with a combination of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Nicolas Batum or Terance Mann. Luke Kennard certainly helps them on offense, but he was being targeted on defense by Mitchell. If Mitchell is allowed to feast, then the Jazz will win the series.
Pelton: The ability to create off the dribble. The assumption was that would favor the Clippers, but I think Utah’s ability to score self-created buckets is wildly underrated. In fact, the Jazz’s 50.3% effective field goal percentage on shots with more than two seconds of touch time — sixth in the league during the regular season, per Second Spectrum tracking — was actually better than the Clippers’ 49.4% mark (11th). Playing against the Clippers’ junk defenses, Utah had just 15 assists on 40 field goals in Game 2 but won anyway thanks in large part to Mitchell’s creation.
Windhorst: The Jazz in the fourth quarter. They’ve blown some leads (don’t ask about last year) but, whoa, have they looked like a championship team in the fourth quarter during this six-game playoff win streak. Games 3 and 4 in the Memphis series and Games 1 and 2 against the Clippers were all wide open in the fourth and the Jazz’s mix of active defense, great shooting and Mitchell have secured 50/50 games repeatedly. It’s championship stuff.
Young: George. The secret of the story of Playoff P is that he’s actually quite similar to Regular Season P. George’s entire history as a star player is an ability to reach a peak level, on par with the absolute best in the world, but then follow that with a puzzling, wandering performance two nights later. The Clippers need the best version of George only four times, and if they can get it, they can beat the Jazz.
The Finals matchup with the best storyline is …
Young: Suns vs. Hawks. After we got beyond all the big-market handwringing that would go on, the focus could shift toward the reality that the league would have an opportunity to showcase two stars who could be featured players for the next decade. Giving Trae Young and Booker the big stage could pay long-term dividends for the NBA. And I’m also a major sucker for overcoming long title droughts, or winning your first, and seeing Paul in the NBA Finals just seems long overdue.
Pelton: I like Brooklyn’s big three vs. Utah’s homegrown core as a storyline, but I think the answer has to be Nets vs. Clippers for the opportunity to see Durant vs. Leonard in a battle with both of them playing at a high level. Kawhi wasn’t quite there yet in 2016 when Durant’s Thunder upset Leonard’s Spurs, and we were denied this matchup in the 2019 NBA Finals by Durant’s injuries. This would be a fitting culmination for KD’s incredible comeback.
Sedano: It’s any series that involves Paul. The only things missing from his résumé are a Finals appearance and subsequently a championship. Particularly, if the Nets were the opponent. CP3 vs. Kyrie? A dream point guard matchup. Not to mention potentially squaring off versus his old teammate in Harden. Having him and this young/fun group of Suns face a Nets team that looks like a juggernaut would be must-see TV.
MacMahon: Suns vs. Nets. Don’t count on Paul and Harden going out to dinner between games if they face each other in the Finals a couple of years after their two-year tenure as Rockets teammates ended. Harden wasn’t the only one in Houston who wanted to trade Paul and a bundle of picks for Russell Westbrook, but that deal wouldn’t have been done unless Harden pushed for it. Paul has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that it was a bad move, and leading the Suns to an upset over Harden’s superteam would be the sweetest revenge. (Another storyline: Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni trying to finally win a title at the Suns’ expense.)
Windhorst: Suns vs. Nets with Harden and Paul healthy. The Rockets can cry in the corner.
Even with a 2-0 lead, the Utah Jazz know they still have plenty to prove
It is easy to forget — and perhaps healthier — that two teams blew 3-games-to-1 series leads against the Denver Nuggets in last season’s Western Conference playoffs.
But fate has matched those teams — the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers — against each other in the second round of this year’s playoffs, a sort of group session on how to bounce back from a postseason meltdown. And there are plenty of notes to compare.
All season, both teams have had to make their peace with the outside world’s difficulty in believing in them, no matter how well they play or what they accomplish.
Take the Jazz, who have just held serve at home with two impressive wins over the Clippers, behind two incandescent performances from star Donovan Mitchell — who finished with 37 points in Thursday night’s 117-111 win in front of 18,306 fans at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.
But even the Jazz players will tell you they haven’t proven or done anything yet.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity over the last few years, on and off the court,” Gobert said. “We’re at a point where we all understand that we have a great opportunity to accomplish something special this year. We don’t want to miss out on the opportunity.”
When you blow a 3-1 series lead (which has happened only 13 times in NBA playoff history), respect is hard to come by. Both the Clippers and Jazz have had to accept that this season. But both have also used that as motivation, and as a learning experience. Each showed how much they’ve grown in Thursday’s game.
“I think we understand how to handle these things, and that was what you saw tonight,” Mitchell said. “The experience level in the bubble helped … just continuing to do what we do and understanding they’re going to punch back and we’ve got to continue to fight.”
The Jazz looked to be cruising to an easy win for most of the first half. But much as it had in a taut, seven-game series against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, Tyronn Lue’s club stayed poised and made key adjustments.
Utah was excelling at scoring off the dribble, hitting 17 of 25 shots, so the Clippers switched to a zone defense to try to clamp down on Mitchell’s drives (he was 8-for-11 on drives in the first half).
It worked. LA went on a 46-23 run and even took the lead, 101-99, on a 3-pointer by Reggie Jackson with 6:37 to go in the fourth quarter.
According to Second Spectrum data, the Jazz shot just 29% on the 18 possessions in which they faced a zone Thursday night.
“When they played zone, I thought our spacing broke down,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “Anytime you’re not spaced, it’s tough to move the ball. … I thought that affected us mentally.”
But the Jazz didn’t panic. Joe Ingles hit a layup by banking in a scoop shot high off the backboard like he was playing in a backyard game of HORSE. Then Bojan Bogdanovic hit a 3-pointer to put the Jazz back up 104-101.
“There’s going to be adversity,” Mitchell said. “We’re not going to always blow them out, blow teams out. It’s the playoffs. It was great being up 21, but at the end of the day, they executed like they should. They have been here before. They have guys that have been to the Finals, been in the playoffs, have rings, have championships, so this is nothing they haven’t seen before.”
The Clippers came back again, though, getting two free throws from Paul George to cut the lead to 104-103, and a steal from Kawhi Leonard set up Marcus Morris Sr. for a 3-pointer that could’ve given LA the lead.
Ingles assisted on both of those plays, then hit a 3-pointer of his own with 3:07 to go to put the game out of reach, 113-103.
“I’ve been answering a lot of questions about [Ingles] and [Clarkson], and I think their play kind of reinforced who they are,” Snyder said. “Not that anybody needed to know that. They didn’t have to prove anything. But it wasn’t just what showed up on the box score. I thought that Joe played with tremendous poise and confidence, and JC, when he’s come in the game, he’s able to make plays and hit shots that are usually really momentum shots.”
For the Clippers, it was a second straight missed opportunity to steal a game on the road against the top-seeded team in the West. But there was plenty for LA to feel good about, too.
Jackson continues to play like a guy the Clippers can count on in a role (starting point guard) they’ve been searching for an answer on for the better part of two seasons.
His 29 points on Thursday led all Clippers scorers, and 24 of them came in the second half when the Clippers stormed back from a 21-point deficit.
“He was great tonight,” Leonard said of Jackson. “They let him play on the island. He stayed aggressive. He got to the paint. He made some big shots. He’s been doing that for us all year.”
George also got it going in the second half, finishing with 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and some clutch shot-making in the final minutes to help give LA a chance to steal the win.
Then there were the contributions from Beverley, whose defensive pressure forced two key turnovers while the Clippers were staging their rally, and DeMarcus Cousins, who continues to be effective in short spurts against Gobert.
But mostly it is the feeling that they had a chance to win both games in Utah, despite coming off a quick turnaround from the Dallas series.
“We’ve got to give them credit,” George said. “This is a tough opponent. They weren’t No. 1 in the West for no reason. This is a tough team. But, you know, we are approaching this the same way Dallas was; we still feel we have a lot of possessions that we can clean up and a lot of possessions that are hurting us that’s our fault.
“So as good as they are playing, as good as this matchup is, as tough as this matchup is, we still feel like there’s moments throughout this game, this series, that, you know, we are making plays that are self-inflicted. It’s a lot of uphill, but we’re optimistic that we can get this under control and go back home and one game at a time and try to tie this series up.”
Kawhi Leonard says LA Clippers ‘up for challenge’ down 0-2 again
The Clippers, though, are going to have to dig deeper than any other team in NBA history to get out of this hole against the Utah Jazz after falling 117-111 in Game 2 before a sellout crowd of 18,007 at Vivint Arena.
While the Clippers rebounded to beat the Dallas Mavericks in seven games after dropping the first two at home in the first round, no team has ever overcome multiple 2-0 deficits in the same postseason.
“We all got to put our will out on the floor,” Leonard said of what it will take for the Clippers to duplicate their first-round comeback. “You know, see what we did in the first two games and try to limit our mistakes and just keep going on from there pretty much.
“We’ll see [on Friday] what we got to do, and we’ve got a lot of fight left. So you know, we’re up for the challenge.”
The Clippers showed plenty of fight in Game 2 on Thursday night. They fell behind 76-55 with 9 minutes, 27 seconds remaining as the Vivint Arena crowd celebrated a 24-5 run that spanned from late in the second quarter to early in the third.
But Reggie Jackson drilled six of seven shots and scored 16 of his 29 points in the third quarter to lead a Clippers’ comeback.
Jackson buried back-to-back 3-pointers, and the Clippers led 101-99 with 6:37 left in the game. But like they have been for much of this postseason, the Clippers were streaky, and suddenly their shot deserted them.
The Clippers missed nine straight shots, including six from behind the arc, and Utah capitalized to go on a game-clinching 14-2 run.
Despite the results, head coach Ty Lue said he was “very happy” with the shots the Clippers got during that game-deciding drought.
“I mean, what else can you get?” Lue said. “Four or five wide-open 3s, we just didn’t make. So we knew Rudy [Gobert] was going to help. We knew our shooters was going to be open, and we just got to step up and make shots, and we don’t. We just got good shots and we didn’t make them. Hopefully next game, they go down.”
Unlike in the last series when the Clippers dropped the first two at home and then had to win Games 3 and 4 in Dallas to even the series, Lue’s team returns to Staples Center hoping to hold serve. If they don’t, they could return to Utah facing elimination or potentially not make it back at all.
The Clippers know top-seeded Utah is a better opponent than Dallas. But they still remain confident knowing that they have recovered from an 0-2 deficit just in the last series.
“We’ve got to give them credit,” said Paul George, who had 27 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. “This is a tough opponent. They weren’t number one in the West for no reason. … But, you know, we are approaching this the same way Dallas was — we still feel we have a lot of possessions that we can clean up, a lot of possessions that are hurting us that’s our fault.”
The Clippers will also have to find a way to slow down Donovan Mitchell and Utah’s shooters. Mitchell has scored 45 points and 37 points in the first two games. And Utah buried 20 3-pointers in Game 2.
“As good as they are playing, as tough as this matchup is, we still feel like there’s moments throughout this game, this series, that, you know, we are making plays that are self-inflicted,” George said.
“It’s a lot of uphill. But we’re optimistic that we can get this under control and go back home, one game at a time, and try to tie this series up.”
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