Comeback kids: Jamal Murray drops 40, Nuggets beat Clippers to win Game 7

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Since before the season tipped-off, the Los Angeles Clippers looked like the champions… on paper.

They had the elite talent, the Sixth Man of the Year depth, the coaching, the strong perimeter defenders, and a two-time Finals MVP. That rarely showed on the court. Injuries, distractions, and rest kept them from playing together, developing chemistry, and going through adversity together. Through it all, there was a sense of entitlement around this team. The Clippers believed when the time came they could flip the switch.

It turns out, they couldn’t even find the switch.

Denver, on the other hand, can flip its switch.

The Denver Nuggets got 40 points from a resurgent Jamal Murray and a dominating triple-double from Nikola Jokic — 16 points, 22 rebounds, 13 assists — to come from double-digits down again to blow the doors off the Clippers and win Game 7 104-89.  The Nuggets beat the Clippers and the series 4-3.

The Nuggets advance to the Western Conference Finals to take on the Los Angeles Lakers, starting Friday.

“We are just not accepting that somebody’s better than us,” Jokic said.

“I think a lot of the issues that we ran into, talent bailed us out; chemistry it didn’t,” Lou Williams said. “In this series, it failed us. We know this is our first year together. We are a highly talented group and we came up short. Chemistry is something that you’ve got to build. You build it over time.”

Denver built it, even with a young team, through continuity of the core and the system. Plus, this team just has grit.

Denver becomes the first team in NBA history to come back from 3-1 down in a series twice in one playoffs — and they did it in the first two rounds. The Nuggets out hustled and out executed the Clippers throughout the last four games, sticking to coach Mike Malone’s game plan. Denver was flat out the better team.

Through the first six games of the series — having learned a lesson from watching what he did to Utah — the Clippers were all over Murray with their best defenders. They would not let him get rolling. The price for that was Jokic had more space and in the past three games he had carved up the Clippers defense. In Game 7, the Clippers doubled hard on Jokic because they didn’t want to let him take them down. It didn’t work — Jokic was passing and still impacting the game — but Murray had more space and stepped up with 25 first-half points. He finished with 40.

In the second half, the Nuggets just beat the Clippers, got whatever they wanted on offense while the Clippers shooters had T-Rex arms.

The Clippers scored just 33 points the entire second half, shooting 28.5% for the half and they were 3-of-18 from three — including Paul George hitting the side of the backboard with a corner three. Here is the clippers’ second-half shot chart.

Clippers 2nd half shotchart

For the game, Leonard was 6-of-22 shooting, George 4-of-16.

The Clippers’ defense may have been worse than their offense in the second half. Combined that led to an ugly half of basketball and a painful elimination for a team that was championship or bust.

“Right now, just disappointed,” coach Doc Rivers said of his mood. “You know, honestly I thought just you could see the difference in the two teams. That team has been together, we haven’t, and you could see it as the games went on. They just knew each other so well.”

With this bust, the Clippers have a lot of questions to answer.

To get George (and with him, Leonard as a free agent), Los Angeles traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, their own first-round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, two other first-round picks belonging to Miami (2021 and 2023), and agreed to pick-swaps with Oklahoma City 2023 and 2025. It was a lot to surrender.

What the Clippers were guaranteed was two years, two playoff runs with those stars. This was one of them, and because of the expectations and hype around this team, it is the on-court low point for a franchise that has had some deep lows before.

Now Doc Rivers’ coaching, the lack of defense in the supporting cast — Montrezl Harrell is a free agent this summer — and what changes can be made all come into question.

The Clippers, they talked about the lack of chemistry. Rivers mentioned multiple players missed time in the bubble (for excused, legitimate reasons, plus some wings) and that hurt the Clippers chemistry and conditioning (several Clippers were gassed at the end of the game).

“Just briefly we had a conversation already amongst guys that we’ve got a quick turnaround,” Williams said. “We understand this is going to be a quick off-season and let’s get back to work and continue to build.”

Once again, it’s wait until next year for the Clippers.

Not for the Nuggets, who had better chemistry, were the better team in this series, and beat the Clippers. The future is now for this young team.

Evolving plan for next NBA season has USA Basketball, Tokyo Olympics in limbo

Tokyo Olympics
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Will NBA players be available to represent their countries when the Tokyo Olympics begin next July 23?

Nobody knows. As the NBA pushes back its start date for next season — NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently said it likely would be after the first of the year, but sources around the league tell NBC Sports to expect more like February or March — it leaves USA Basketball and the participation of NBA players in the Olympics in limbo. Here’s what USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo told Chris Sherridan of Basketball News.

“I was told the NBA season would start in December, and then it was Christmas, and then after Jan. 1, and that keeps pushing the schedule for me. The NBA season typically takes 170 or 171 days to complete, so that creates a conflict on paper,” said Colangelo, adding that a suspension of the NBA season in order to clear time for the Olympics also has been discussed…

“If the [NBA] season conflicts with the Olympics, I might have 14 non-playoff teams to choose from, but then other players will become available as the NBA playoffs progress,” Colangelo said. “The problem is that the IOC has a rule mandating an early submission of a 12-man roster. But with a pandemic, the hope would be that you’ve got to set aside outdated rules. I assume people will be reasonable and come up with some kind of a program that works.”

Right now, there is no answer for Colangelo and USA Basketball because there is no answer on next season. The only thing owners seem set on is playing a full 82-game schedule — after taking a financial hit this season, owners want to start making money again — with fans in the building for as many of those games as possible.

If the NBA season starts in February and was condensed slightly, the regular season could be done before the Tokyo Olympics. A Team USA made up of guys who missed the playoffs would still be formidable (this past season that would have included Stephen Curry, Karl-Anthony Towns, Trae Young, Bradley Beal, and others). However, other countries don’t have the luxury of that kind of depth.

Also being discussed is an NHL-style break in the NBA season to allow players to compete in the Olympics, then return to finish the season.

Team USA, despite its struggles at the World Cup last year, still qualified for the Olympics. That was a team depleted of NBA star power because of both injuries and guys not wanting to play the World Cup then Olympics in back-to-back years (nobody knew the coronavirus would blow up those plans).  What players USA Basketball will send to Tokyo remains up in the air.

And there’s little Colangelo can do but wait.

PBT Podcast: NBA Finals preview, Los Angeles Lakers vs. Miami Heat

NBA Finals Preview
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
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It’s happening in October, not June. And rather than cross-country flights, everyone will be camped out in a bubble in Orlando.

But the NBA Finals are finally here: The Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Miami Heat. Which means it’s time for an NBA Finals Preview.

The Lakers are the heavy favorites but Miami posses some matchup challenges, starting with Bam Adebayo on Anthony Davis. Add in Jimmy Butler checking LeBron James for stretches, and the Heat shooters such as Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, and this is not going to be a cakewalk for Los Angeles.

Mark Medina of the USA today joins Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports for this NBA Finals Preview. They break down the matchups, talk about what it would take for Miami to pull off the upset, and discuss how this matchup could influence how other teams build out their rosters in the future.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

With Doc Rivers out, three names to watch as next Clippers coach

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Point to the blown 3-1 series lead against Denver, pick apart his tactical decisions in the playoffs this season if you want, but know this: Doc Rivers is a natural leader of men. Players respect him and want to play for him, and they win for him (he has a ring from Boston and is the winningest coach in Clippers history). He was a key reason Kawhi Leonard came to the Clippers.

Which is why it caught everyone off-guard that Rivers is out as the Clippers coach. Even after the blown opportunity.

If Rivers is out, then who is next? Whoever takes the job gets a team that should contend on paper — two elite stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, plenty of depth and quality role players, and an owner willing to spend what it takes to win — but also a lot of pressure. The Clippers gave up a lot to get Leonard and George, and each can be a free agent after next season — the Clippers are the ultimate win-now team.

Here are three names to watch.

1. Tyronn Lue

His is the name you hear most around the league, and is the most reported. He has been the right-hand man for Rivers this season, the Clippers’ lead assistant who has won a ring as a head coach in Cleveland, and he’s used to working with big-name stars. He is respected and liked by the Clippers players and the transition of power would be easy. Lue can have the job, but he also has options — Houston, Philadephia, and New Orleans also are in line to speak with him.

2. Jeff Van Gundy

It feels like an obligation to bring his name up for every coaching opening in the NBA (and probably high school and college), but in this case there is a legitimate reason: Clippers’ president Lawrence Frank is a huge fan. The former Rockets and Knicks coach has the gravitas to get players to listen, even though he has been in the ABC broadcast booth for years. Both the Rockets and now the Clippers want to talk to him. For the next couple of weeks, Van Gundy will be talking about that other Los Angeles team as he broadcasts the NBA Finals.

3. Sam Cassell

After the top two names on this list, things get speculative. Would the Clippers have interest in Mike D’Antoni (who is the favorite for the Philadelphia job)? If not Van Gundy, how about his broadcast partner Mark Jackson? If the Clippers are looking at a former player who is a lead assistant, how about Jason Kidd (still in the bubble with the Lakers)?

We’ll throw current Clippers’ assistant Sam Cassell in there, too. He’s a longtime NBA assistant who has interviewed for some top jobs and deserves a shot somewhere. Again the transition would be easy, and he would bring some swagger to the locker room.

Another question worth asking:

What is next for Doc Rivers?

Whatever Rivers wants. If he wants to jump back into coaching, the Pelicans and 76ers reportedly are interested.

If Rivers wants to take a year off and golf more, he could quickly get a job working in studio or on the broadcasts with ABC or Turner/NBATV — he is phenomenal on camera.

Report: Timberwolves expected to draft LaMelo Ball if not trading No. 1 pick

LaMelo Ball Timberwolves
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The Timberwolves traded for ball-dominant, defense-deficient point guard D'Angelo Russell then landed the No. 1 pick… in a year the top prospect is ball-dominant, defense-deficient point guard LaMelo Ball. Even the other prospect often atop draft boards, Georgia shooting guard Anthony Edwards, wouldn’t be a simple fit with Russell and Malik Beasley already in the backcourt.

That’s why Minnesota is open to trading the top pick.

Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report:

If the Wolves stick at No. 1, multiple sources say they’d bet on LaMelo Ball having the edge over Anthony Edwards.

Do these sources have actually insight into Minnesota’s thinking? The possibility makes this interesting.

However, they could just be supposing. Though the pre-draft process is far from complete, I tend to think Ball is the top prospect. I definitely think the Timberwolves should draft the top prospect available. But Minnesota’s view might not match my own – or Wasserman’s sources’.