Preview: Denver Nuggets face LA Clippers in battle for playoff positioning

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

The NBA’s 2019-20 restart in the Orlando bubble has provided plenty of stressful and memorable moments for the Denver Nuggets and their fans. From Bol Bol’s debut and Michael Porter Jr.’s dominant scoring displays to multiple overtime games and clutch moments, the seeding games have been quite the experience for the Nuggets.

That experience continued Monday with a 124-121 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, which saw Denver’s bench unit nearly carry the team to victory over a Lakers team playing its starters in crunch time. Unfortunately for the Nuggets (46-25), Kyle Kuzma hit a 3-pointer with just 0.4 seconds remaining to give Los Angeles the victory. PJ Dozier impressed off the bench with a career-high 18 points.

Now Denver turns its attention to the other LA team with a matchup against the second-seeded Clippers approaching Wednesday. LA (47-23) sits 1 ½ games ahead of Denver in the race for the second seed in the Western Conference. The Clippers are just 3-3 in their seeding games as they’ve missed several key players throughout the restart. Both LA and Denver are continuing to manage minutes ahead of the playoffs beginning on Aug. 17.

The two teams split the first two matchups of the season series prior to the league’s stoppage in March.

Here are three storylines to watch for in Wednesday’s contest.

Can Denver defend the 3-point line?

Coverage around the Nuggets’ defense in the bubble has centered around the team’s struggles defending the 3-point line, which doesn’t bode well for Wednesday’s matchup.

The Clippers rank second in the league in 3-point percentage among the 22 teams in the bubble, having connected on 43.1 percent of their attempts from deep. On the other end of the floor, Denver’s defense ranks last in the bubble in defending the three, as opponents have shot 45.5 percent against the Nuggets from beyond the arc in six seeding games.

Simply put, it’s hard to win basketball games when your opponent shoots over 45 percent from beyond the arc, and Denver doesn’t have much time to iron out the defensive kinks before the playoffs begin.

Although the Clippers don’t attempt a lot of 3-pointers (35.5 per game, good for 13th among the 22 bubble teams), they have elite shooters throughout their roster, which will present a challenge for Denver’s defense.

Where can the Nuggets attack LA’s defense?

It’s no secret Denver’s offense thrives in the mid-range. The Nuggets rank fifth in the frequency of shot attempts coming from that area of the floor and have shot 42.1 percent on such shots, good for eighth in the league.

However, attacking LA’s fifth-ranked defense may be a different story Wednesday. Although the Clippers do give up a healthy amount of attempts in the mid-range and from beyond the arc (ranking 23rd in their opponent’s frequency of shot attempts from both areas), LA hasn’t allowed opponents to convert at a high rate from anywhere on the floor.

Yes, part of defense is shooting luck, but opponents have only shot 37.8 percent in the mid-range against LA, which doesn’t bode well for Denver.

The Nuggets have struggled to generate and convert quality looks from beyond the arc and with Gary Harris and Will Barton III missing all six seeding games up to this point, the offense has lacked a diverse attack on the perimeter to break down opposing defenses.

LA’s elite defensive unit will provide Denver with a good test heading into the playoffs.

Fight for the second seed or focus on playoffs?

As mentioned earlier, the Clippers are only 1 ½ games ahead of Denver in the race for the second seed. If the Nuggets were to win Wednesday, they would hold the tiebreaker against LA by virtue of winning the season series, opening the door for them to secure the second seed with a win in their final seeding game and a loss by the Clippers.

However, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone may simply be focused on ensuring his key rotation players are fresh for the playoffs, as evidenced by him holding the starters on the bench down the stretch of recent games against the Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers.

With homecourt advantage not being a factor in this season’s playoff matchups, Denver can feel comfortable knowing that it is focusing on next week’s playoffs instead of trying to secure the second seed, which would ensure homecourt advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs in a normal season.

It will be interesting to see which buttons Malone pushes in Wednesday’s contest as he prepares his team for their second-straight playoff appearance.

Wednesday’s game will tip at 7 p.m. MT and will air on Altitude TV and ESPN (Radio: KKSE 950AM).

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