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Wednesday Cup of Canis: Did That Just Happen?

Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray lead Denver in stunning comeback

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Seven Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Okay, we all had our fun last night, but really, what the hell happened last night?

In case you live under a rock, the Denver Nuggets just pulled off one of the more shocking upsets in NBA history. After falling down 3 games to 1 for the second series in a row, Denver, led by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, came back to knock out the mighty Los Angeles Clippers in 7 games.

All season long, the Clippers had been the team we all figured would flip the proverbial “switch” come playoff time and look like the championship contender (and betting favorite) that their talent level should deliver. Instead, with their back against the wall, the Clippers shriveled up in the biggest moments.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined for 24 points on 10-38 from the field including just 4-18 from three. I had my fun on Twitter last night, but that is clearly just unacceptable. Paul George’s playoff history takes another turn for the worse, and I truly don’t know what he will have to do to repair his postseason reputation. He’s not in James Harden territory, but that’s mostly just because Harden is better than George and more is expected of him. “Playoff P” is going to be something that haunts him for awhile.

As for Kawhi Leonard? I dunno, guys, but that was pretty awful. Denver has a few really good defenders, such as Torrey Craig, Gary Harris, and Jerami Grant who did a great job on him. They forced him into tough looks, but Kawhi has made his living and built an aura over him by taking and making a multitude of difficult shots. We can’t pretend he’s the best player in the world anymore, though. Leonard’s lack of passing/play-making ability has been noted for a while, but what was more apparent to me is how difficult his shot profile routinely is. He usually makes his tough shots which is what makes him so great, but struggling to get to the rim against Mason Plumlee is a tough look. Leonard is still great, and probably still belongs in the top-3 discussion, but he took a big hit last night for sure.

The biggest takeaway for me from a team building perspective is that ball-handling and play-making are two very, very different skill sets and should be treated as such. The Clippers have a lot of guys who can handle the ball. You’re comfortable with a lot of guys dribbling and going one-on-one. They don’t really have a guy who looks to create for others, though, and that seems like the glaring weakness that kept this team from being even just the sum of their parts. This is/was the most talented roster in the NBA.

It’s easy to keep harping on the Clippers, Kawhi, PG, and Doc Rivers, but a lot of credit needs to go to the freaking Denver Nuggets. My goodness, were Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic fantastic. Murray struggled against LA’s litany of wing defenders for most of the series, but he is absolutely fearless and that showed out in Game 7. He dropped 40 freaking points in a Game 7 against Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley. That is incredible. The kid is tough as nails, and is a legitimate star. Jamal Murray has arrived this postseason in a big way.

Murray was no doubt fantastic, and he was probably the best player on the floor last night with his shot-making (15-26 from the field, 6-13 from three), but Nikola Jokic was the best player in this series. Wherever we had him ranked in the pantheon of NBA superstars before this series was not high enough. Outside of LeBron James, there isn’t a player I’d rather have in an elimination game. The way he sees the floor and manipulates defenses with his eyes is reminiscent of prime Peyton Manning.

I realize everyone assumes that the Lakers are going to make slight work of Denver, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are a different beast in the playoffs for sure, but what Jokic just did is impossible to ignore. He is a legitimate top-5 player in the league who has proven to be an incredible playoff performer.

A few closing thoughts...

  • I’ll be the first to admit I see things through a LeBron James-centric lens. He’s my favorite athlete of all time. However, I don’t know how you can watch what has happened in this postseason and say that anyone other than LeBron is the best player in the world. His injury and attitude at the end of last season was disappointing for sure, but the King is truly back on top of his throne.
  • I never, ever, EVER, want to hear anyone complain about the predictability of the NBA ever again. We make assumptions all year long that end up being patently false year-in and year-out. Yes, the NBA playoffs are set up for the best team to win every year. That’s why you play a 7-game series. What gets lost in that is even a 7-game series is a remarkably small sample size, and as a series goes on, favorites leave themselves vulnerable to variance.

The Clippers didn’t take care of business in Game 5 or 6, and they left themselves at the mercy of a Jamal Murray supernova game. Also, injuries happen. Guys break-out in the way Murray has. Sometimes, we don’t actually know who the best team is. Between the Raptors last year and Denver and Miami this year, let’s stop pretending we know everything before the playoffs start.

  • Murray and Jokic will get most of the credit for Denver’s historic 3-1 comeback, but I really want to point out the three guys who swung this series, and Game 7 in particular. Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, and Jerami Grant swung that game last night. They hounded George and Leonard all evening, and deserve endless amounts of credit for their defensive performances.

Not only that, but they combined to shoot 14-27 from the field! They were awesome playing off of Murray and Jokic. In particular, Gary Harris has been the difference. Harris struggled with his shot the past two seasons, getting all the way down to 33% from three this season. Since returning in Orlando, Harris has been awesome. He’s not quite a third banana type on a championship team, but he is a damn good player who has had a massive impact on these playoffs. If he continues to make shots, I’m not going to count Denver out of anything with the way Denver’s two stars are playing.