The Denver Nuggets just got past the Utah Jazz in a grinding and captivating first-round series that had both teams spent. Just two days after dispatching the Jazz, the Nuggets begin their Western Conference semifinal against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Clippers were also pushed in the first round, with Luka Doncic supplying plenty of heroics for the Dallas Mavericks. But L.A. won the last two games of the series fairly handily, with Kawhi Leonard starting to enter playoff mode.
There are a number of interesting storylines entering the series, most notably the health of both point guards.
Nuggets star Jamal Murray was on another level against the Jazz, but also suffered a thigh injury after colliding with Joe Ingles in Game 7. However, he is expected to be in full health for Thursday’s game.
Meanwhile, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said he was “pretty sure” Patrick Beverley would be in uniform on Thursday.
The two guards could loom large, especially with Beverley possibly matching up against Murray and harassing him all over the floor.
However, as good as he was in the first round, Murray is not Denver’s X-factor in this series. That distinction belongs to a guy who has played just two games in Orlando: Gary Harris.
Harris might be the most important defensive player on the floor for either team.
Granted, he is not the “best” defensive player. Kawhi Leonard holds that title, and Paul George–when he is right–is among the best perimeter defenders in the game.
Nevertheless, the Nuggets will need Harris to wear multiple hats. He can be used as a physical presence against Lou Williams off the bench, which is vital considering Williams’ ability to be a microwave when he gets in games.
Harris might even have to match up with Leonard, considering how poorly Torrey Craig played against the Jazz. He would be at a size disadvantage, but it seems unlikely Mike Malone would entrust that defensive assignment to Paul Millsap.
If that is indeed the case, Harris holds the keys to the series.
Leonard was unstoppable against the Mavericks, seemingly getting into the lane at will and leveraging his size and length to create space for his midrange jumper. Kawhi averaged 32.8 points on 53.8 percent shooting from the field, also pulling down down 10.2 rebounds and dishing out 5.2 assists.
The Nuggets need to make things tougher for Leonard. Perhaps even treat him like the Miami Heat are treating Giannis Antetokounmpo: pack the paint and surround Harris with help defenders. After all, Leonard shot below 30 percent from the three-point line against the Mavericks.
Denver would likely prefer to have Williams or Paul George beat them, rather than Leonard.
Harris is physical and instinctual on-ball defender who hunts the ball. Whether he can help keep some of L.A.’s top scorers from getting easy points could be a critical development in this series.
Will he be a scorer?
Harris has had perhaps the worst offensive season of his career. He averaged just 10.4 points, and his .519 true shooting percentage his lowest since he was a rookie.
The former Michigan State product actually had a great run of games at the start of the month, only for the season to be put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Harris then suffered a hip strain which kept him out of the seeding games.
Harris would return for Game 6 of the Utah series, though his shooting left much to be desired. The 25-year-old shot 1-for-4 from the field in Game 6, then went 1-for-9 (including 1-for-5 from deep) in Game 7.
The Nuggets would undoubtedly love for Harris to find his shooting stroke, but it might be just as important if he can provide some scoring off the bounce.
Dallas had the most success against the Clippers when Luka was driving into the heart of the defense and either scoring at the rim or finding open shooters.
Jamal Murray could fill this role, but he is more of a purveyor in the pick-and-roll, pulling up for midrange jumpers and hiding behind screens for good looks from deep. This is not to say Murray does not get to the cup, but he is less of a bulldozer than Doncic.
Harris has the athleticism to rip through closeouts and finish strong at the rim. The question will be whether he is assertive enough in taking on more of the scoring burden, as well as how healthy the hip feels.
Regardless, it is clear the Nuggets cannot rely on the kind of heroics they got from Murray in the first round. Denver desperately needs more scoring and playmaking on the wings, and they could get it from Harris if he channels more aggression.
Harris is a pivotal player in this series, both for his on-ball defense as well as his ability to be a third scoring option. Can he help the Nuggets pull off an upset? Harris’ activity level and on-ball matchups will be something to keep an eye on during Game 1 on Thursday night.