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Previewing the second round with Denver Stiffs

Ryan Blackburn answered our questions about the Nuggets for the second round of the playoffs.

Los Angeles Clippers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

After beating the Dallas Mavericks in six games, the Clippers have date with the Denver Nuggets in the second round. The Nuggets got here by outlasting the Utah Jazz in seven games in the first round, coming back from 3-1 down to stay alive.

We reached out to Ryan Blackburn of SB Nation’s Denver Stiffs to become more familiar with this Denver team heading into the series. Here’s what Ryan had to say.

How do the Nuggets plan to guard Kawhi Leonard and Paul George?

This is the crux of the problem that the Denver Nuggets face when matching up with the L.A. Clippers (and Los Angeles Lakers with LeBron James). Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are walking mismatches, and given the way they space the floor and surround those guys with quality talent, it’s difficult to sell out on either of them. The Nuggets will definitely be starting Jamal Murray, Jerami Grant, and Nikola Jokic against the Clippers. Grant will likely match up with Kawhi. He’s had some success against the Finals MVP in the past, though that is probably taking too much stock in regular-season games.

Denver has mixed and matched other players around those three, and none of them are great matchups. Torrey Craig likely has the best chance, but he can lose focus on the details and commits fouls frequently. Gary Harris is back, and while he’s an excellent guard defender, big wings give him issues. Monte Morris faces a similar problem. Paul Millsap is probably too slow to keep up on the perimeter. That leaves Michael Porter Jr., who, while he’s not a good defender, has the right blend of size and athleticism to match up with Paul George. I think the Nuggets will play a Murray-Craig-Porter-Grant-Jokic lineup frequently, switch 1 through 4, and dare the two All-Stars to win the game by themselves.

Who is Denver’s X-Factor off the bench?

It has to be Porter, who has been part of Denver’s best lineups throughout the bubble games despite being as inexperienced as any rookie in the playoffs. The natural scoring talent is unbelievable, and in this day and age, having wings/forwards with his length, size, and shooting ability is a golden ticket in a playoff setting. The Nuggets have seen Murray break out as a star, and they have Jokic to also carry the load. The player outside of those two with the most capability to change a playoff series is Porter. As he continues to find his role in the playoffs and grow accustomed to playing regularly, he has improved ever so slightly on defense. The shooting is elite, as is the rebounding. If those two pieces come together in the right way, the Clippers may be forced to deploy a lot of attention offensively to a rookie. That makes life easier for Murray and Jokic, who don’t need a ton of space to operate their two-man games anyway.

What in the world has gotten into Jamal Murray?

I’m one of the who that foresaw a leap from Murray in this bubble environment, but never in a million years did I think Murray would turn into Stephen Curry with Kobe Bryant’s footwork overnight. If I had to point to a couple of factors, I’d say his confidence in his role and a willingness to be “the guy” have led to this breakout. He knows it falls to him to be the guy to drop 40 points. The Nuggets opened up the floor for Murray, and he has made a living on the difficult and contested shots that everyone wants him to take. He’s just making them at a high clip because he’s making a leap, seeing the floor cleanly, and executing exactly what he needs to in order to score. (Editor’s note: Murray averaged 31.6 points per game on 55.0% shooting from the field in round one. He is now one of four players to ever have two 50-point games in the same playoff series, joining Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, and Donovan Mitchell.)

If Denver upsets LA, how will it happen?

I won’t be picking the Nuggets in this series because they’ve been through such an emotional and taxing experience thus far that it feels like malpractice to expect so much against a championship contender. If they do upset the Clippers, though, it will be because of four things.

First, Jamal Murray needs to keep playing like a star, maybe even superstar, against elevated competition. The Clippers won’t always put Leonard on him, but even if they do, Murray has to be willing to go at him the same way he went at Royce O’Neale. It may yield less than 60% shooting, but the Nuggets should be content with “normal good” in those scenarios. Second, Nikola Jokic has to dominate Ivica Zubac. Zubac was excellent in Round 1 and is a player I really like, but if Jokic continues to hit threes at an absurd volume, he can help Denver’s entire offense stay efficient. If the Clippers play Montrezl Harrell and JaMychal Green against him, Jokic has to punish that mismatch on the interior. Third, Grant and Craig have to be up to the task in 1-on-1 coverage. The Nuggets have better individual defenders than the Mavericks, but it won’t matter if Leonard and George are as good as they can be. Denver has to limit at least one. Finally, Porter has to get involved, whether it means defending Leonard and George in some instances, or being liable to hit five three-pointers in a game, either in a starting or bench role. If all four of those factors — or at least three of the four — go Denver’s way, they have a chance of upsetting LA, no matter what national pundits may say.

Thanks to Ryan for taking the time to educate us on the Nuggets, and make sure to check out all of the great Denver coverage on Denver Stiffs.