Updated: Sep 16, 2020
On paper, this may be considered one of the worst collapses in NBA playoff history. Nuggets fans would tell you it's just another stop on their historic playoff run, Clippers fans probably won't talk to you at all right now, but either way, the media is going to have a field day with this series. After confidently going up 3-1, the Clippers fell short due to poor team play, overconfidence, and stars fizzling out when it mattered most.
Less than a week ago, on a Friday where Boston dealt with a scrappy Raptors team, the Los Angeles Clippers should have closed out their 3-1 lead in game 5 against the Denver Nuggets. With game 1 in the series being a blowout in favour of LA, and with them bouncing back after game 2 to take a stranglehold on the series by winning games 3 and 4, everybody expected it to be over quickly. It looked to be going that way with 22 minutes left in game 5 and the Nuggets down 19 points, but with the season on the line, Denver rallied using their first-round playoff matchup against the Jazz for inspiration.
You see, this was nothing new for Denver. When down 3-1 in the first round, staring down a game 5 that could have been the end of their season, they rallied. Down by as many as 15 points, they never gave up hope. They pushed to a game six before back-to-back wins brought them to the first of their 3-1 upsets. Now, just a few weeks later, the Nuggets have done it all over again. On the backs of the star tandem in Jokic and Murray, this Denver squad continues to defy expectations.
Nikola Jokic has been the absolute rock behind this "never say die" Nuggets squad. To say he is the definition of a modern NBA center is an understatement. The man simply does everything you could possibly want on the basketball floor, while also standing 7 feet tall and protecting the rim. Just looking at the numbers across the elimination games, Joker averaged 24 points, 17 rebounds, and 8 assists on 50% shooting with a +15 net rating. Game 7 would be his time to shine, getting the first triple-double of his 2020 playoff run (by the third quarter) with a ridiculous stat line of 16/22/13 while also having a game-high plus-minus of 22. At this point, he may be the best passing center in the history of the NBA, and he's only 25 years old! Throw him into the pick and roll with running mate Jamal Murray and these Nuggets may be straight up unbeatable.
Speaking of Maple Curry, Jamal has put in his case for being the best shooter left standing in the bubble. After thirteen games played, he sits as an almost 50% 3 point shooter with over 7 attempts a night. Just like his partner in crime, game 7 was another shining moment. Jamal led the team in scoring (40 points) while knocking down some big three-pointers to seal the massive 3rd and 4th quarter runs. Murray came out to prove that he is not afraid to face-off against any opponent in the postseason. After surviving a shooting contest in the first round against fellow sharpshooter Donovan Mitchell, no opponent was too big for this Canadian kid.
So what exactly went wrong for this mighty Clippers squad? Analysts will poke and prod this series for weeks to come and will find a team over-hyped, overconfident and asleep at the wheel.
On paper, this team had everything needed to win a championship. The deadline pickups of Reggie Jackson (unplayable in this series) and Marcus Morris bolstered that belief only a few months ago. The early games in this series showed it when the Clippers came out swinging and took a tired Denver team to the brink. With each win grabbed back, LA found no reason to adapt, believing to be firmly "in the driver's seat" according to Paul George going into game 7. With that logic, PG and Kawhi drove the car off the road in the 4th quarter of that game.
Combined, the pair shot 0/11 in that final quarter, while the Clippers team got nothing going offensively. Kawhi himself went 1/11 in the second half, the worst of his playoff career. For the first 6 minutes of the 4th, the "best team in the NBA", in a closeout game 7, could not get the ball to fall through the basket. The longer it went on, the more life drained out of the LA players as their worst fears became reality. With 2 all-defence team members, 6th man Montrez Harrell (and most likely runner up, Lou Will), and an MVP calibre player in Kawhi Leonard, you should be able to put away a 3-1 series lead. Maybe Paul George putting in fewer field goals (4) in game 7 than draft picks (5) that were traded for him had something to do with it? This may just be the most embarrassing loss in the history of the NBA with ramifications for years to come.
This could be chalked up to an absolute collapse by a team unproven, untested, and matched up against what could be the most historic run in NBA history. It could also be a continuation of an almost 50-year "curse" afflicting this organization. The Clippers have never been able to make it into the conference finals, 0/8 all-time in semis and now sits as the longest active franchise in sports without a conference finals appearance. They are 0/15 all-time in the playoffs, with this year's playoff exit mirroring that of "Lob City" in 2014/15. Doc also now sits as the only coach to blow multiple 3-1 leads in the NBA, with the two mentioned above, as well as his 2003 exit with the Orlando Magic against the Detroit Pistons, who granted, won a title a year later. It's crazy to think that just last season Doc Rivers was in the conversation for coach of the year.
If anyone deserves the praise it should be Mike Malone, head coach for the Denver Nuggets, as he has kept this team going through a grueling 14 game playoff grind. There is a reason this is the first back-to-back 3-1 series reverse sweeps in NBA history. No team faces four 15+ point season-ending deficits in the playoffs and comes out ahead without a mastermind of a coach to keep the boys going. He will now look to rally this team against what may look to be an even greater foe in the LA Lakers. No matter what happens with the rest of the playoffs, this Nuggets team will be etched into the history books.
The Clippers traded their future for two/three years of what should have been confirmed title runs, with Kawhi Leonard signing as arguably the best player in basketball after his finals MVP run with the Raptors. Additionally, Paul George forced yet another trade out of a small market team, causing the media to immediately pin this team as title favorites. Their yapping gave the team unwarranted confidence and hope for fans who thought they would finally cruise to a championship. That hope was shockingly and devastatingly ripped away from them, with their outlook now as bleak as ever.