After the Lakers knocked out the Rockets in five games on Saturday, we had another elimination game between the Clippers and Nuggets on Sunday. More precisely, it was a “potential” elimination, because after a massive second-half comeback, Denver managed to force Game 7 in convincing fashion, winning 111-98. It’ll be a must-watch event on Tuesday night at 9pm ET. There was also momentous coaching news in the NBA on Sunday, with Mike D’Antoni leaving the Rockets, so let’s get right into the Dose.
The Clippers/Nuggets showdown in Game 6 was a tale of two halves. Denver trailed early and was behind by as many as 19 points early in the third quarter. Then they ramped up the defensive intensity, began hitting shots from all over on the court, benefited from star-level play from Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, and walked away with another improbable win. This was their third comeback of the 2019-20 playoffs after trailing by 15+ points. “We find it funny that the narrative is like, ‘Oh, the Nuggets are a cute team. What a good story,'” coach Michael Malone said before the game. “We’ve always been [called] a team that was too young, not talented enough … I think our players are very comfortable being uncomfortable.” They’ve now won five straight elimination games, so the character of this team can’t be faulted.
Gary Harris was huge in Denver’s Game 6 win, playing solid defense and chipping in 16 points on 5-of-11 FGs and 4-of-6 FTs, with four assists, four steals and two rebounds. The biggest number for Harris, though, is 42. That’s the number of minutes he logged in Game 6, the most he’d played since May 3 of the 2018-19 playoffs in an overtime loss to the Blazers. That was a quadruple-overtime loss, in fact, which tied an NBA postseason record. The point is that Harris recently returned from a hip injury and his minutes had been in the 20s most nights since his return in the postseason. Part of that was foul trouble, and he fouled out of Games 4 and 5 while averaging 25.0 minutes. Then on Sunday, with the season on the line, he avoided foul trouble, hit buckets when it mattered most, and played great defense. For Denver to advance they’ll need this version of Harris, especially since they’re already at a talent deficit without Will Barton (right knee soreness).
Jamal Murray was landed on by Paul George and there were some nervous moments as he writhed on the court in pain. He limped around a bit but never seemed in danger of sitting out, and was at his best during the Nuggets’ second-half trouncing. We’ll have literally six official injury reports prior to Tuesday evening’s Game 7, so there should be plenty of warning if Murray is in danger of sitting out. He won’t. Murray finished 9-of-13 from the field for 21 points with five rebounds, five assists, two steals, one 3-pointer and just one turnover in 41 minutes. We’ve witnessed multiple “breakout” type games in the playoffs from Murray, a player who was already hitting top-50 fantasy value in 33.4 minutes per game during the regular season. He’s an easy third-round target, especially since point guards drop off fast and he won’t hurt your FG% — for perspective, he shot 46.5% from the field this season, while Kemba Walker shot 42.9%. Spencer Dinwiddie shot 41.5% on 16 attempts per game.
I’m veering off the topic of guards, but it’s worth remembering that Blake Griffin shot 35.2% from the field in 18 games this year. There’s no context to that except for the fact that Detroit went 20-46. He’s only 31 years old, yet injuries are piling up and unless he lands in an ideal situation it’s hard to see him resuscitating his fantasy appeal. That would require Detroit acquiring elite players to maximize his strengths, particularly at the PG position, or just moving on. No team is likely to take on the $75.8 million Griffin is owed the next two years, however, so Detroit will view him as a failed bet and continue to rebuild. From scratch, basically, with only Griffin, Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, Svi Mykhailiuk and Khyri Thomas under contract in 2021-22. Unless they acquire some generational talent, the Pistons look in for a long-term and painful rebuild. Thus ends that aside about the moribund Pistons.
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Paul George got into early foul trouble, which has been a fairly consistent problem for PG this postseason. He’s had at least four fouls in all but three games this postseason, but has managed to navigate it and is still averaging 36+ minutes. His offense has also come around vs. Denver, coming in at 46.8% from the field and 42.7% from deep. That’s a stark improvement from the first round when George shot 40.8% from the field and 27.0% on 3-pointers. He said afterward that the Clippers’ mood after their Game 6 loss was “positive,” adding, “We’re still in the driver seat. It’s not a panic mode. We have a Game 7. I like our odds with our group.” There’s nothing else he could have said, really, but the optimism is great to hear.
In the NBA coaching world, the headline was Mike D’Antoni announcing that he’ll leave the Rockets. It’s not a huge surprise after he and the team’s management failed to negotiate an extension last summer, followed by a disappointing exit in the playoffs. He said in a statement that he’s “moving to a new chapter,” but the 69-year-old coach doesn’t seem inclined to retire. He’s indicated that he intends to keep coaching and was quickly linked to the Sixers, where he’ll reportedly be “considered among a group of candidates.” Any team with a coaching vacancy (other than the Rockets, of course) will likely give him a look. As Adrian Wojnarowski noted on ESPN, D’Antoni has won Coach of the Year honors twice and led Houston to the second-highest winning percentage (.682) in the league over the past four years. His resume speaks for itself.
D’Antoni was also mentioned as a potential candidate to replace Pacers coach Nate McMillan, whose firing in late August caused some cognitive whiplash — he’d inked a contract extension two weeks earlier. The Rockets played with the second-fastest pace during the regular season, despite a ton of isolation plays for James Harden. They also led the NBA with 19.6% of their plays in isolation, while the second-highest team was at 9.9% (the Blazers). That’s a simply massive disparity.
Houston had a mere 2.2% of their possessions end with a post-up this year, whereas the Sixers, due to Joel Embiid’s presence, easily led the league at 11.5%. I’m posing a question with two perspectives. Is this purely a personnel disparity, which D’Antoni could easily navigate by inheriting a fundamentally different team in Philly? Or is it a philosophical disparity, in which case D’Antoni would need the Sixers, and Embiid in particular, to change their approach to the game? The Pacers were more transition-heavy, with a seemingly less-awkward fit for D’Antoni’s established style. We’ll find out in a matter of months.
On the Rockets’ side, D’Antoni’s announcement was soon followed by a report that there’s “mutual interest between the Rockets and Clippers assistant coach Sam Cassell.” Doc Rivers said this very week that Cassell “should be a head coach, period,” and his record as a player and assistant should speak for itself. Yahoo’s Chris Haynes also reported that the Rockets will likely “take a strong look at Los Angeles Clippers assistant Tyronn Lue.”
Whether they hire Cassell, Lue, or someone else entirely, Rockets GM Daryl Morey reportedly wants to push ahead with his team’s ultra-small-ball approach. Given that they traded Clint Capela and lack a true center (Tyson Chandler doesn’t count), with $265 million committed to two players over the next three years, they may not have much of a choice but to lean into small-ball anyway. In 2021-21 alone, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon and Robert Covington are owed a fully-guaranteed $119.7 million. The salary cap for the 2019-20 season was $109.1 million, and revenue losses from the COVID-19 pandemic could wreak havoc going forward. Morey has his work cut out for him.