The Nuggets are heading to the Western Conference finals
By Colin Ward-Henninger CBS Sports
The Denver Nuggets once again thoroughly dominated the second half to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers, 104-89, in Tuesday night’s Game 7 to advance to the Western Conference finals. It was the second straight series that Denver erased a 3-1 series deficit, something no NBA team has ever done, and they’ll now meet the Los Angeles Lakers with a chance to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Denver was led by its dynamic duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Murray led all scorers with 40 points on 6-of-13 3-point shooting, while Jokic finished with 16 points, 22 rebounds and 13 assists. Montrezl Harrell led the Clippers with 20 points off the bench, with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combining for just 24 points on 10-for-38 shooting.
The Clippers held a 12-point lead in the first half, but just as they did in Games 5 and 6, the Nuggets went to work in the second half to put the Clippers away. With Leonard, George and a deep supporting cast, the Clippers were considered the NBA title favorite for much of the season. They’ll now leave the bubble after three straight disappointing losses.
Below are four takeaways from a wild series finale.
1. Jokic and Murray are a superstar duo
Last summer was all about the NBA’s superstar duos. There was Anthony Davis and LeBron James with the Lakers, Leonard and George with the Clippers, MVPs James Harden and Russell Westbrook on the Houston Rockets, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn — even Portland’s Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in some people’s eyes. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone outside of Denver who listed Murray and Jokic in that group, but they’ve proven without a doubt during this postseason run that they belong in the middle of the conversation.
Jokic was an absolutely unwinnable matchup for the Clippers all series, with his full offensive arsenal on display from shooting to posting up to his unparalleled passing and playmaking. He set the tone early in Game 7 and never relented.
Murray, who averaged 31.6 points in Denver’s opening-round series win over the Jazz including two 50-point outbursts, was held in check as a scorer for most of the Clippers series while being defended by their wide array of strong wings, but he didn’t force the issue, shooting 45 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point range for the series. He also showed improved playmaking and patience, averaging 6.4 assists per game.
There was no better apples-to-apples comparison than watching Murray and Jokic put up huge performances in the biggest game of their careers, while Leonard and George missed shot after shot down the stretch. There’s no more talk about what Murray and Jokic can one day be as a duo — they’ve proven they’re here now, and they’re here to stay.
2. Another Clippers collapse?
All credit goes to the Nuggets for snatching this series from the clutches of defeat, but it’s impossible to ignore Clippers history in light of this devastating loss. After leading by 16 points in Game 5, 19 points in Game 6 and 12 points in Game 7, the Clippers had every opportunity to slam the door shut and advance to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. They looked out of sorts in the second half of each of the last three games, and despite Denver’s strong defense, missed a lot of makeable shots down the stretch. They missed their first 10 shots of the fourth quarter in Game 7 as the Nuggets pulled away, and were never able to recover.
When the Clippers were at full strength this season they looked like a championship favorite, but their inconsistent effort finally caught up to them against the Nuggets. The loss hearkens back to previous Clippers collapses, notably against the Houston Rockets in 2015, and there will be lots of talk about the “Clipper Curse” as the team heads into the offseason.
3. Welcome back, Gary
After missing the seeding games and most of the Utah series, we weren’t quite sure what we’d see from Gary Harris. It turns out, he was one of the main factors in the Nuggets advancing to the Western Conference finals. Harris gave Denver another much-needed reliable wing defender alongside Jerami Grant, and he also gave them the offensive boost they needed. Without a bonafide third scorer, Denver generally has to piece things together, but Harris was consistent throughout the Clippers series, averaging 10.7 points per game on 50 percent shooting, including 42 percent from 3.
Harris played just over 31 minutes per game in the series, including 42 and 37 in Games 6 and 7, respectively, and he’s looking more comfortable every night as he returns from a hip injury. He’s clearly confident enough to take, and make, big shots, which has been huge for the Nuggets and will continue to be against the Lakers.
4. Nuggets have nothing to lose
People counted the Nuggets out when they were down 3-1 to the Jazz. They were left for dead and labeled outmatched when they went down 3-1 to the Clippers. Now they find themselves in a Western Conference finals matchup where they’ll be the underdog once again — and at this point that absolutely plays to their favor. Jokic even invoked the “nobody believes in us” motivation during his on-court interview after Game 7, while talking about how much he treasures this team.
“Whatever we do, I’m gonna remember this team. … I’m going to remember every single one [of the players] because this is a special crew,” Jokic said. “Nobody wants us here. Nobody thinks that we can do something. We proved to ourselves and proved to everybody that we can do something.”
Murray also said he thinks the Nuggets have been dismissed as a legitimate title threat.
“All y’all better start giving this team some damn respect,” Murray said after the Game 7 win over the Clippers. “Because we put in the work and we’ve got a resilient team. We shouldn’t have been down 3-1, but to come back from 3-1 against the Clippers, it was a big achievement. It’s fun just to change that narrative. Y’all can finally start changing the narrative and looking at us in a better light.”
There’s nothing more dangerous than a team with nothing to lose and a chip on its shoulder, and that’s exactly what the Nuggets are right now. They’ll run into a tough matchup against LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the next round, but Jokic and Murray have proven time and time again that they can be the best duo on the court in any matchup and we know this team will never, ever quit.