Moore: The Denver Nuggets’ Round 2 Series Odds Are Too Good to Pass Up
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets, Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers.
I’m out over my skis here. I can admit that. But sometimes, all you can do is live on that edge of gravity and try and get down the slope.
(Have I mentioned I’m a terrible skier?)
I have been targeting this bet for some time, and the number has made it impossible for me to go the other way.
The Denver Nuggets series price is listed around +700 or more at most books (+800 at BetMGM) vs. the Los Angeles Clippers. They were down 3-1 to the Utah Jazz before storming back and surviving a grueling Game 7. They are openly exhausted. The Clippers won the season series 2-1 including a 132-103 demolition in February. In the lone game the Nuggets won, Paul George didn’t play.
And yet, here I am, to tell you I’ve got the Nuggets +700.
The implied odds at +700 are 12.5%. So the bar for getting value on this is pretty low. I think the Nuggets’ actual odds are much higher.
The Clippers finished the regular season with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league, per NBA Advanced Stats. They have Kawhi Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley, along with Landry Shamet and Marcus Morris, both plus defenders.
However, they ranked 25th in pick-and-roll defense. In the playoffs, they rank seventh, giving up 0.915 points per possession to a Dallas Mavericks team that didn’t have Dwight Powell and lost Kristaps Porzingis for the last two games.
The key here is that the Clippers’ defense has a lot more holes in it compared to their reputation. And much of that has to do with their centers.
Ivica Zubac is a good defensive center. His defensive numbers are really good, he’s big, rangy, and can do his job in the system. But he’s not mobile enough to switch, or apply pressure on ball-handlers.
So he plays back in drop coverage and the Clippers trust their guards to manage pick-and-roll, an impossible task in today’s NBA. Leonard can absolutely disrupt things with the Jamal Murray-Nikola Jokic pick-and-roll:
But this will be there all day:
The Clippers will double Jokic in the post and create turnovers, but if there’s one player you want to be able to read the defense and kick it out, it’s Jokic.
Now, the Nuggets’ shooters may not be able to capitalize on that. But with Michael Porter Jr. in the rotation, alongside Jerami Grant, their chances improve.
“But how are the Nuggets going to stop the Clippers?”
Well, they’re not.
I’m not going to try and convince anyone that the Nuggets and their 120.3 Defensive Rating in the postseason are going to stop the Clippers. However, in Games 4 through 6, even before the rock fight that was Game 7, Denver dropped its defensive rating to 115.
Based on the talent differential, it seems insane to suggest the Clippers are a better matchup for the Nuggets than the Jazz were … but it’s true.
The Nuggets struggle with super long, hyper-athletic finishers like Rudy Gobert, who is also the best interior defender imaginable against Jokic. This matchup is just a lot more favorable for the Nuggets big man.
Jamal Murray will have to be more of a facilitator in this series. He’ll still find his way into points, and his improved accuracy on passes (and lower turnover rate) will help a ton in this series. But those perimeter defenders are no joke.
That puts a lot of pressure on the Nuggets’ auxiliary guys. Gary Harris hasn’t shot above 34% from 3-point range for the past two seasons. Porter Jr. is very much a rookie and every good thing from him is often crossed with a mistake. Grant, however, shot 39% from deep this season and has some big playoff games on his resume. He’ll have pick-and-pop opportunities too.
Paul Millsap looked 100 years old and was a negative in plus-minus in every stint in the first round. The Clippers are a better matchup for him; they use small-ball players like Morris and JaMychal Green at power forward. Millsap needs to take more 3-pointers, though, he shot 44% in the regular season and 40% against the Jazz on a paltry 2.1 attempts.
The Clippers certainly have more adjustments they can make on the Nuggets’ perimeter players, but Denver has shown resilience and ability to adjust the later a series extends. (Remember they were down 2-1 to the San Antonio Spurs in Round 1 last year, 2-1 to the Portland Blazers in Round 2, and 3-1 to the Jazz this season, but forced a Game 7 in all three series.)
This team makes it impossibly hard on itself, but they also tend to respond.
“Who do the Nuggets have that can guard the Clippers’ stars?”
That’s a popular question. Here are two things to note:
1. Kawhi Leonard shot 4-of-14 when guarded by Grant this season. But Leonard is so good, it doesn’t matter who defends him. The Nuggets are not going to slow him down with what they have, if he’s locked in. The goal should be to make him work for it to expend energy. This is not dissimilar to what the Nuggets did with Donovan Mitchell.
2. If Paul George is the leading scorer in this series, the Nuggets probably have a shot, because George tends to come and go as the game flows. He’s not a consistent scorer, he’s a burst scorer. He’s a marvelous passer and his bad playoff reputation is, in my opinion, unearned, but you would still live with that if you’re the Nuggets.
I am completely open to the concept I am overthinking this. I operate from a paradigm that matchups and dynamics matter, but sometimes it’s just about “the other team is a lot more talented” and the Clippers are a lot more talented. But Jokic has an incredible matchup in this series.
But the game spread for Nuggets +2.5 wins at DraftKings is +150; the Nuggets just have to take two games (you can hedge that with Clippers-in-five +180 if it makes you nervous.)
When I look at the matchups, after paying attention and analyzing them all year, and where the prices fell for this series, I’m left with no conclusion other than Denver is undervalued. I’m on them to win the series +700 and +2.5 games (+150).