If the NBA playoffs take place, the Denver Nuggets may find themselves matched up with the LA Clippers. Here’s how the Nuggets could find a strategic edge.
After creating a scenario where the only upsets in the NBA playoffs this season could be achieved by the Denver Nuggets, the second round will have them matched up with the extremely balanced, 2nd-seeded LA Clippers. The Clippers are one of, if not the best defensive teams in the NBA, so the Nuggets need to really value the ball and exploit mismatches in this series when present.
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In all honesty, there really aren’t any obvious mismatches that favor the Nuggets offensively between the teams starting lineups, which is why execution will be key here. Since the strongest defenders on the Clippers are Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, I would put whoever they are being covered by into the corners as decoys and open shooters if those two help out in the paint.
Ideally, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley shouldn’t be guarding the primary ball-handler, which could possibly mean that Nikola Jokic will be tasked with bringing the ball up the court. However, if he runs a pick and roll with whoever is being guarded by Beverley, a defensive switch could create a favorable matchup as the 6’1″ Beverley would be guarding the seven-foot Jokic.
With Leonard and George covering corner shooters and Beverley guarding Jokic, offense should come easy. If Jokic gives up the ball to whoever Beverley was originally guarding and works for position in the post, he either has a massive size advantage in a one-on-one situation with Beverley, or he has wide-open corner shooters if Leonard or George rotate down to help out.
The Clippers are no slouches on the offensive end of the ball either as Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Marcus Morris Sr., Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell are each threats to go for 25 on any given night. Regardless of strategy, the Nuggets will have their hands full.
The best way to increase their odds would be to double Kawhi Leonard somehow. Double-teaming Kawhi would be helpful as it would not only put pressure on the Clippers leading scorer, but it would also force him to be more of a playmaker than he’s used to being. Kawhi did average 5.0 assists per game this season, but he has never averaged more than 3.5 in any seasons prior.
I think Patrick Beverley would be the best option to leave open on this double-team, as he has only had one 20 point game this season, and only one other game of reaching 15 points. This double-team is basically attempting to turn Kawhi, a scorer, into more of a playmaker while turning Beverley, a playmaker/defender, into more of a scorer.
In response, the Clippers may sub out Beverley earlier than normal, as he is being identified as the weak link on both offense and defense (mainly due to size). If they replace Beverley with Lou Williams, the offensive strategy of having Williams switched onto Jokic stands, as Williams is the same height as Beverley and not as skilled defensively. He does, however, provide a major scoring threat off the bench, at 18.7 points per game, and absolutely cannot be left open for a double-team.
At this point, the best defensive strategy might just be to match up regularly, as everybody on the court is a major scoring threat. The Clippers starting center, Ivica Zubac would be the weakest remaining offensive player at this point, but doubling off a seven-footer is asking too much of the remaining three defenders. However, if the strategy worked well enough that Beverley got subbed out early, it is also likely that the Nuggets are holding a lead and can afford to match up one-on-one.
The last major key for the Denver Nuggets defense is how they defend ball screens. This point is actually important in every round of the playoffs, especially when there aren’t many obvious advantages over the opponent, but it’s still worth mentioning. The Nuggets need to exert a little extra energy defensively to fight through ball screens rather than just defaulting to switching every time. Switching can cause major mismatches in favor of the opposing team, and this series will likely be close, with every possession carrying significance.
If the Denver Nuggets can execute offensively, meaning they trust Jokic to make the right decisions out of the post, and they can play disciplined defense that sticks to the game plan, they should be in for a war against the Clippers, but certainly would have increased odds of success. A Nuggets victory would set up a compelling Western Conference Finals matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers.