When the Denver Nuggets entered the Staples Center to take on the Los Angeles Clippers, it was clear the game carried more weight than a typical matchup at the end of February.
The Nuggets and the Clippers entered the game as the second and third seeds in the Western Conference respectively and they left the game tied for the second seed as the Nuggets fell to the Clippers 132-103.
In the game, the Nuggets turned the ball over too often, their defense was inconsistent at best, and they did not play with the same level of intensity as the Clippers did which led to the loss, but there was more to take away from the matchup than just the outcome.
The Nuggets and Clippers could end up meeting in the postseason and the battle between them on Friday night provided a glimpse into how that playoff matchup could go. So with that being said, let’s dive into three major takeaways from Denver’s loss to Los Angeles.
Jerami Grant proves his value in a potential matchup with the Clippers
When the Nuggets traded for Jerami Grant prior to the start of the season, they did so for multiple reasons. He is a great outside shooter who can also defend five positions while protecting the rim, but none of those reasons were more important than how much more formidable his skill set makes Denver in a playoff matchup
There was no shying away from the fact that Denver had a glaring lack of wings in their two playoff series last year, but now with Grant in the fold, they have a multi-faceted offensive player who has the physical tools to defend elite opposing wings.
That theory puts a spotlight on every matchup the Nuggets have against the likes of the Lakers or Clippers and Grant has played well in most of those battles.
On Friday night, Grant was Denver’s second-leading scorer behind Nikola Jokic. Grant finished with 20 points on 5-15 shooting and, while his shooting percentages did not look great, Grant managed to make 8-10 free throw attempts and 2-5 three-point shots to go with four rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in a team-high 29 minutes.
Grant spent time guarding the likes of of Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell throughout the night as he was deployed as a defensive multi-tool throughout the night.
It’s safe to say that Grant is exactly the type of player who make Denver more dangerous in the playoffs.
Michael Malone continues struggling to trust Michael Porter Jr.
For most of the first half, everything was disastrous unless it was Jokic shooting the basketball.
Gary Harris and Will Barton III struggled to hit most shots they tossed up, everyone was turning the ball over, and even Paul Millsap turned his ankle early in the first and struggled from that point on. But when Michael Porter Jr. came into the game, the Nuggets found the energy and impact they needed.
Porter, despite a couple of mistakes, was playing inspired ball on the defensive end of the floor which included a big-time block and some sound perimeter containment. Additionally, he rebounded relentlessly as he usually does while also hitting a 3-pointer and closing the first quarter with an offensive rebound putback for his fifth point in four minutes.
Still, despite Porter’s strong start on both ends of the floor in just four minutes of action, Malone elected to remove Porter from the game in favor of Torrey Craig, who hypothetically provides more defensive production than Porter does, to begin the second quarter.
From that point forward, Porter did not see the court until there was just about five minutes left in the fourth quarter and the game was entirely out of hand. Porter essentially was a garbage time player against the Clippers.
This has become a common theme throughout Porter’s rookie season. Despite his obvious on-court impact, Malone has been either uncomfortable or unwilling to let the rookie play through his mistakes consistently.
At some point Malone is going to have to trust his young and incredibly talented rookie. Malone has already gone out of his way to say that Porter will play in the playoffs and that he will remain in Denver’s rotation, but the only way Porter will be fully ready for the playoffs as a rookie is to log minutes now and to get into a rhythm. Otherwise, you risk dropping an out-of-rhythm rookie into his first playoff series in an important role.
It is fair to assume that Malone is just trying to work Porter back slowly from his ankle issue, but if Porter’s minutes don’t spike upwards in the near future, it could hurt the Nuggets in the postseason.
Denver’s matchup dilemma against Clippers
The Nuggets have a serious issue matching up with the Clippers and that was on full display on Friday night as the Clippers demolished Denver on ESPN by 29 points.
Simply stated, with their normal starting lineup, Denver will always be at a disadvantage.
First and foremost, Jokic is never at a disadvantage. He will be fine against even the most elite centers on both ends of the floor, but his ability to destroy Ivica Zubac, Montrezl Harrell or JaMychal Green is undeniable. The Nuggets will own that matchup every time.
But the positives stop there.
No matter how good of a night Harris is having on either end of the floor, asking him to slow Kawhi Leonard over a seven-game series is just not realistic. Harris is just not big enough and Leonard might be the strongest perimeter player in the world. When you combine that with the understanding of just how dominant Leonard is in the postseason, it becomes clear Denver cannot win that matchup.
With Harris trying to check Leonard, Barton was left with the incredibly difficult task of chasing Paul George around the perimeter which went about as well as could be expected. Despite Barton’s sizable growth on defense, he got torched by George on Friday night. Barton is four inches shorter than George and is also relied on to fill many different roles on the offensive end of the floor which means his ability to contain George unsustainable at best.
Paul Millsap did a good job of defending Marcus Morris, but Morris is a good enough shooter to pull him out of the paint which negates a lot of what makes him so fantastic in Denver’s defensive scheme. Millsap is essentially a free safety who rotates all over the court for Denver making up for any possible mistakes on the perimeter. If he is always sucked out near the three-point line, his defensive impact is marginalized.
Lastly, Murray’s matchup with Beverley, which is not bad in a vacuum. Yes, Murray is a better scorer and facilitator than Beverley, but its not about what Murray can do as much it is about what Beverley can take away. If Murray is being hounded by Beverley all night and he manages to throw off the two-man game between him and Jokic, the Nuggets offense becomes much more reliant on Jokic which makes them predictable. That is what happened on Friday night and there is no reason to believe that will change anytime soon.
There are no good answers to solving Denver’s matchup issues with the Clippers starting unit. Malone could try to get Jerami Grant more minutes at small forward alongside Millsap and Jokic to defend the size of the Clippers, but that puts even more stress on Denver’s bench unit who need to be perfect if Denver wants a chance to win.
Those questions will not be answered easily, but Malone needs to start finding answers sooner rather than later.