After back-to-back Game 7s in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, the matchups for the semifinals are set despite the two Eastern Conference Semifinals already in full swing. The Los Angeles Clippers defeated the Dallas Mavericks 111-97 four days ago in Game 6 to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals. The Denver Nuggets are less fresh as they defeated the Utah Jazz 80-78 two days ago in Game 7 of their series to advance.
The Nuggets have reached the second round of the playoffs for the second year in a row. Last year, they engaged the Portland Trail Blazers in an epic seven-game series that saw Game 3 go to four overtimes. In Game 7, the Nuggets blew a 17-point lead in the first half and lost the game 100-96. The Nuggets shot 2-19 on three-pointers and point guard Jamal Murray shot 4-18 from the field. They were so close to the Western Conference Finals despite poor shooting and a young team.
This season, the Nuggets looked improved as Murray blossomed into a franchise cornerstone and young winger Michael Porter Jr. displayed his elite offensive potential. The Nuggets took on the Utah Jazz, hampered by the injury of their second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic, in the first round.
Despite this, the Jazz, especially Donovan Mitchell, came out blazing. Mitchell scored 57 and 51 points in Game 1 and 4 respectively. Murray kept up and the two engaged in an epic playoff duel. Murray led the Nuggets to a Game 1 overtime win with 36 points and despite a Game 4 loss, Murray dropped 50 points on the Jazz.
The Nuggets were down 3-1 and needed to win their last three games to advance. This is where Murray established himself as a star in this league. He scored 43 and 50 points, respectively, in elimination games, sending the Nuggets to a Game 7. Like last year, the Nuggets struggled to shoot as Murray shot 7-21 from the field and the Nuggets shot 25.8% from three.
This time, the Nuggets came out on top after a brutal fourth quarter. Nikola Jokic’s hook shot broke the deadlock and the Nuggets won 80-78 after Mike Conley’s shot clanked off the rim. The Nuggets will now get a second chance to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2009.
They will face a team that has been title contenders all season long, the Los Angeles Clippers.
Last year, the Clippers were a young team that gave the Golden State Warriors juggernaut a run for their money, taking the two-time defending champions to six games. Then, they, along with the rest of the league, watched as Kawhi Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA championship by defeating the Warriors in six games.
Leonard decided to join the Clippers this offseason as his contract with the Raptors expired. He was instrumental in developing a blockbuster trade that saw the Clippers acquire Paul George from the Thunder for numerous draft picks, young point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and winger Danilo Gallinari.
The Clippers came into the playoffs as the second seed in the Western Conference behind their crosstown rivals in the Los Angeles Lakers. They faced the Mavericks in the first round, a team with the highest offensive rating in NBA history.
The Mavericks proved to be formidable as the Mavericks took Game 2 127-114. After a Game 3, which saw the Clippers win 130-122 and Mavericks’ superstar Luka Doncic injure his ankle, the Mavericks fought hard in Game 4. Without big man Kristaps Porzingis, Doncic took the team on his shoulders. He dropped 43 points on the Clippers along with 17 rebounds and 13 assists. This included a step-back buzzer-beater in overtime to give Dallas a 135-133 win, evening the series at two games each.
The Clippers bounced back and handled the Mavericks in Game 5 and 6, advancing to the second round for the first time since 2015. Leonard has looked as great as ever, averaging 32.8 points per game (PPG) while George has struggled mightily. His field goal percentage is 35.8% and his three-point field goal percentage is 27.5% to go with 18.5 PPG.
George must improve if the Clippers are going to realize their championship potential. However, the Clippers come into this series battled tested after facing a tough opponent in the first round. With two extra days of rest, they will be fresher for this series than the Nuggets. The Nuggets’ offense is nowhere near as explosive as the Mavericks, even with Murray at his best. The Nuggets simply do not have the weapons to compete with the Clippers’ hounding defense while having no real option to shut down both Leonard and George.
The Nuggets, especially Murray and Jokic, should be respected for what they have done the past two seasons. However, everyone knows the Western Conference will come down to the two LA teams and not even the Nuggets, the third-best team in the conference, can change that. The Clippers will comfortably advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Prediction: Clippers in 5