Preview: Denver Nuggets look to take series lead in Game 3 against Clippers

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

The Denver Nuggets came out firing on all cylinders to open Saturday’s Game 2. Denver lit it up on offense with a healthy mix of long balls and drives to the rim, while the defense turned it up a notch to make the LA Clippers uncomfortable.

The result was a 44-25 advantage after the first 12 minutes of action, which LA was never able to recover from. Game 2 was a stark contrast from Game 1, particularly on the defensive end. After the Clippers got whatever shots they wanted in the series opener, Denver made life very difficult for LA’s offense, especially Kawhi Leonard, who finished 4-of-17 for 13 points in his 39 minutes of action.

READ MORE: Game 2 Takeaways

The Nuggets were led by their star duo of Jamal Murray (27 points, six assists) and Nikola Jokić (26 points and 18 rebounds), but received key contributions from Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Michael Porter Jr. Denver had six players score in double-figures Saturday night, a healthy balance in the offense surrounding Jokić and Murray.

After having more time to recover physically and emotionally from the Game 7 victory over the Utah Jazz, Denver showed why Game 1 wasn’t a true reflection of how this conference semifinals series will unfold.

"Our group believes in themselves," Malone said following Saturday’s win. "We've shown that we're a very resilient group that can execute and find ways to win in close games down the stretch. It's great to be able to tie this series up and have that life and belief going into the next game."

MORE: Twitter reacts to Game 2 victory

Here are three key storylines for Monday’s Game 3.

Making life difficult for Leonard

As mentioned above, Leonard struggled mightily in Game 2. Jerami Grant once again received the primary task of slowing the two-time Finals MVP down, and he did just that. Using his combination of height and length, Grant hounded Leonard all over the floor, especially when Leonard wanted to get to his sweet spots in the mid-range.

However, when slowing down a star player such as Leonard, it is always a team effort. Paul Millsap showed impressive flashes, switching on to Leonard and using his physicality to bump Leonard off his spots while others such as Torrey Craig and Gary Harris also played key roles on the defensive end.

The result was eye-opening for both Denver and Leonard. For the first time since April 30, 2015, Leonard didn’t have a field goal in the second half of a playoff game. Although he contributed in other ways with 10 rebounds, eight assists and three steals, the Nuggets will gladly take similar performances from Leonard if it means limiting him to 13 points and forcing four turnovers.

Who will step up for Denver?

Yes, Murray and Jokić combined for 53 points in Game 2, which was nearly half of Denver’s points in the game. However, the Nuggets wouldn’t have evened the series without key shotmaking from Harris, who knocked down three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter alone.

Meanwhile, Millsap had one of his better playoff games with 13 points and six rebounds, as he provided impressive defense against Marcus Morris Sr. (11 points on 3-of-9 shooting) and Leonard.

Off the bench, Porter Jr. contributed 11 points, seven rebounds and two steals, as he was active on the offensive glass with four offensive rebounds to help Denver’s offense. Monte Morris also hit a couple of key shots and chipped in 10 points.

Given LA’s elite defensive talent, it is unlikely that Murray and Jokić will be able to consistently combine for over 50 points in each game of the series. Therefore, it is crucial that Denver’s supporting cast steps up, on both ends of the floor.

If Game 2 was a sign that Harris has rediscovered his shot, that will be a significant boost for the Nuggets on offense. Meanwhile, the contributions must always come on the defensive end, as it will take a total team effort to consistently slow down Leonard and George.

The battle on the boards

One area that Denver will have to be better in for Game 3 is on the glass. LA outrebounded the Nuggets 52-45 in Game 2, with the key difference being on the offensive glass.

The Clippers secured 19 offensive rebounds Saturday and their offensive rebound percentage of 42.9 percent ranked in the 100th percentile. Although the Nuggets had an impressive night of their own on the offensive glass (14 rebounds), they can’t give up so many second-chance opportunities to a team as good as the Clippers.

Denver was able to withstand the difference on the boards because of their much-improved rim protection in Game 2. The Clippers attacked the basket relentlessly in Game 2 (45 percent of their shot attempts came at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass), but Denver continuously denied them around the basket.

LA shot just 52.8 percent around the rim in Saturday’s game, ranking in the 16th percentile. The Nuggets finished with seven blocks on the night and their help defenders regularly crashed into the paint to provide help defense and rim protection. It will be hard to consistently limit LA’s effectiveness around the hoop to that extent, thus making it crucial that Denver shores up its defensive rebounding moving forward.

Game 3 will tip at 7 p.m. and will air on TNT (Radio: KKSE 92.5FM).

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