The Denver Nuggets trailed by 19 points with 10:10 to play in the third quarter in Game 6 against the Clippers and at that point, it looked like all but a certainty that we would be seeing the Battle for Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday. However, from that point the Nuggets ripped off a 62-30 run as Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray willed their team to a Game 7, as Denver somehow ran away with a 111-98 win.
With Game 7 now looming large on Tuesday night, here are our takeaways from a stunning Game 6 win for Denver.
1. The Nuggets will not quit
Denver has now faced five elimination games this postseason already and have won them all. They’ve been down 3-1 in both of their series and pushed each to a Game 7. For all the very legitimate questions about this team’s roster and some of their weaknesses, they simply refuse to go down without a fight. They bounce back with an incredible resolve, whether from a bad game or a bad half, and refuse to give up.
It’s a testament to coach Mike Malone and the buy-in he gets from his guys, a testament to Murray and Jokic for the effort they put forth even when trailing by big margins, and to the entire roster for just always keeping their head down and moving forward. They go through lulls and spells of horrid defense, but they seemingly always have an answer and it’s something hard to describe. There’s a spirit to this team that’s simply unbreakable, and whether they win or lose in Game 7, what they’ve done in this postseason has been nothing short of incredible.
2. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are stars
The question for Denver, as it is with a lot of smaller market teams, is whether their young, budding stars can continue to develop into their second contracts. When you commit max money to two guys still growing, it’s the only hope as a team for reaching that real contender level. This postseason, we’ve seen that leap from both players and the result is a Game 7 date with one of the league’s title favorites in the second round.
Jokic was unbelievable in Game 6, as he scored 34 points to go along with 14 rebounds and seven assists. He did it all for the Nuggets, and was deep in his bag, raining down towering shots on the Clippers from deep (4-of-6 from three) and attacking the rim when the Clippers closed out too hard.
As for Murray, he took some hard shots and was clearly banged up, but hit crucial shots when the Nuggets needed them, on his way to 21 points, five rebounds, and five assists in the game.
Murray hasn’t been able to replicate his insane production and efficiency from the first round, which shouldn’t have been expected, but he’s continued to find ways to produce when Denver needs him and his shot-making abilities remain incredible. On top of the offense, which we’ve come to expect from those two, it’s the effort defensively that’s shifted this series for Denver. The Nuggets have played incredible defense on the Clippers, with tremendous efforts from their stars who, even if they aren’t exactly stoppers, are at minimum making life difficult on L.A. and forcing them to work for their points.
As we head to Game 7, the spotlight will be firmly on Jokic and Murray, but to this point they’ve shown they won’t shy away from it.
3. Can the Clippers make themselves care for 48 minutes?
There are plenty of questions facing L.A., like whether Doc Rivers has to cut back on Sixth Man of the Year award winner Montrezl Harrell’s minutes after another disastrous game from him, but mainly this team has to figure out if they can play 48-hard minutes of basketball. When they’ve been great in this series, they have completely dominated the Clippers. They have imposed their will on both ends, smothering Denver’s offensive actions and poking holes in their, at times, porous defense.
The problem has been maintaining that level of play for four quarters. They can get a big lead, but have been just as likely to let that melt away. For a team with title aspirations who would have to face the Lakers in the next round, they have to be able to do that. The defense in the second half, while some of it was Jokic and Murray hitting tough shots, was a step slow a lot of the time. They were late closing out on Jokic’s three-pointers, gave up a number of wide open corner threes to Denver’s role players, and were slow to cut off driving lanes, allowing the Nuggets to get deep in the paint to create contact and get to the free throw line. Doc Rivers was pleading with his guys as Denver erased their lead to play better and play harder, and they simply couldn’t turn it on.
The Clippers are incredibly talented, but they’ve simply been out-willed by the Nuggets too many times in this series. It ultimately may not matter in Game 7, but even good games from Paul George and Kawhi Leonard (58 combined in Game 6) isn’t enough if the rest of the team is going to give them almost nothing. Someone else has to step up and the defensive effort has to be there for all four quarters. If that doesn’t happen, then they could find themselves as the latest victims of a 3-1 collapse, and the jokes will be out.