LA Clippers vs. Denver Nuggets Game 1 Preview and Prediction

Garrett Chorpenning

The LA Clippers will finally return to action and begin their second-round series against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night. It's bound to be an entertaining matchup, and one that will decide whether LA can continue to make history within the franchise. 

The Clippers last qualified for the Conference Semifinals in 2015, when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were leading the team. There, they went to battle with the Houston Rockets and took a commanding 3-1 lead before collapsing down the stretch of the series and losing in Game 7. 

As a franchise, that's the deepest the Clippers have ever gone into the postseason. Because of that, this series will take on some extra meaning for long-time fans of the team. 

Fortunately, this year's squad is quite different from the ones we saw during the Lob City era. Kawhi Leonard is here, for one thing, and he looked terrific against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. 

But this Nuggets team isn't merely a roadblock — between Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, there's some upset potential here, and the Clippers will need to be at the top of their game if they're going to move on to the Western Conference Finals. 

Key Matchups

LA: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George vs. Denver's Wings

Kawhi Leonard is going to be a thorn in the side of teams no matter who they throw at him. The same is true of Paul George. They've already done some major damage to Denver's wings this season, and that should only continue into the playoffs. 

Leonard and George have played some of their best basketball against Denver this year. Together, the two have combined to average 50.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game, and both have converted over 50% of their looks from the field. 

Denver's perimeter defense has improved with the return of Gary Harris, but the Nuggets are still without Will Barton, who is arguably Denver's best two-way player.

The six-foot-five-inch forward left the bubble on Aug. 19 to rehab his right knee and hasn't returned since, so it seems unlikely that he'll be available in this series. 

Denver's best remaining option is Jerami Grant, who could wind up being the x-factor in this series if he can handle Leonard and George and provide some buckets on offense as well. But that's a big if, and it's never wise to bet against Playoff Kawhi.

Denver: Nikola Jokic vs. LA's Bigs

Denver's success in this series is going to come down to how effectively LA's bigs can defend Nikola Jokic. The seven-footer is one of the league's best playmakers, a terrific shooter from the mid-range and can step back and hit a three-pointer when need be.

Where he's most effective, though, is in the paint. Per Cleaning the Glass, Jokic ranks in the 96th percentile of all centers in the short mid-range, making him one of the toughest bigs to defend in the NBA.

There's only one player on LA's roster that makes sense to guard Jokic, and that's Ivica Zubac. 

The 23-year-old has the size and defensive ability to keep up with Jokic, especially in the paint. Jokic will still knock down his fair share of jumpers and three-pointers, but Zu will do a far better job of containing him than Montrezl Harrell or JaMychal Green. 

Take this nugget from The Athletic's Jovan Buha as evidence of what Zu can do against Jokic: On the season, Denver logged a minus-14.3 net rating when Zu and Jokic were on the floor together. However, with Jokic on and Zubac off, Denver logged a plus-30.5 net rating. 

If that trend continues into the playoffs, Denver may need to find some additional means of production in a hurry.

Injury Report

Patrick Beverley has become a familiar face in this section of our previews, but fortunately, he may be leaving soon.

On Wednesday, Clippers coach Doc Rivers said he was "pretty sure" that Beverley would be good to go for Game 1, but couldn't guarantee it at the time. We've yet to receive an update since then, but the indication seems to be that he'll play. Otherwise, he'll likely make his series debut in Game 2.

If Beverley remains out, look for Landry Shamet to continue starting in his place. 

For Denver, there are no injuries to report besides Barton's. However, star guard Jamal Murray suffered a thigh injury in Tuesday's Game 7 that may slow him down in the first few games of this series. 

Prediction

Last we saw the LA Clippers, they closed out their first-round series with the Dallas Mavericks in comfortable fashion on Sunday evening. The Nuggets, on the other hand, took Game 7 from the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night by a two-point margin. For that alone, it seems safe to assume that LA has a significant advantage in Game 1.

But more importantly, the Clippers are the better team and should be favored in each game this series. Because of that, we've got LA winning big tonight.

Clippers 128, Nuggets 109

How to Watch

The LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets will take the floor tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET. The game will air on TNT.

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