And with that, the Western Conference playoff bracket is now set outside of the No. 8 seed. By beating the Denver Nuggets, the Los Angeles Clippers clinched the No. 2 seed. They will play the No. 7 seeded Dallas Mavericks. Denver, meanwhile, is locked in at No. 3 and will face the No. 6 Utah Jazz. The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder will occupy the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds, though which team is which is still to be determined.
The Clippers victory came behind a stellar outing by their two stars. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined for 53 points on 50 percent shooting. The Nuggets held their own on a near-triple-double from Nikola Jokic and 25 surprise points from Jerami Grant, but their fate was sealed when they refused to put their starters back in the game in the fourth quarter. Denver's priority wasn't to win this game, and unsurprisingly, they didn't. Here are the biggest takeaways from tonight's game.
The Nuggets are playing 4-D chess
For the second consecutive game against a Los Angeles contender, the Nuggets punted away crunch-time by leaving their bench in for the entire fourth quarter. They lost both games, and while the Nuggets are likely fine with the idea of matchup up with Utah instead of Dallas, Mike Malone could have found far easier ways to tank if that was what this was about. If this was about rest, why not stagger their minutes in a way that allows them to play in the most important minutes rather than earlier ones?
A couple of galaxy-brain theories: first, sensing that both opponents actually wanted to win, Malone wanted a chance to see what both would do in late-game situations without revealing how he would manage those moments. If that was the case, he succeeded. The Lakers and Clippers gave him plenty of fourth-quarter tape, whereas they didn't get new looks at the Nuggets in a clutch setting. The other possibility would be to help the bench get over any possible nerves ahead of the playoffs. Stars are usually immune to postseason pressure. Role players are not. By leaving his bench in late against two of the best teams in the NBA, Malone not only showed faith in his reserves that will lead to confidence, but gave them a reasonable approximation of what playoff basketball will look like.
Remember, Bol Bol is a rookie. Keita Bates-Diop is coming from Minnesota. Jerami Grant has played in the playoffs, but only for the Thunder. Getting them some more important minutes together wouldn't be the worst idea.
Michael Porter Jr. still has a long way to go on defense
Nuggets fans bemoaned Michael Porter Jr.s' lack of playing time all season, but Malone had a point. Porter, like most rookies, is a bad defensive player. His offensive outburst recently doesn't change that. He was exposed on that end tonight, falling for an obvious Lou Williams fake (a rite of passage for first-year players) and generally finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time through miscommunications. Denver has a number of strong defensive forwards. If they're going to beat the Clippers in a playoff rematch, they're going to have to find a way to use them to mitigate Porter's weaknesses, because his offense is absolutely essential to their playoff hopes.
The Clippers have to play matchups with their big men
Montrezl Harrel is going to be a constant. He's too good to sit against anybody. But the rest of the center minutes are up for grabs, and despite consistently struggling against mobile big men, Ivica Zubac proved his utility tonight by shooting 7-of-9 and defending Nikola Jokic fairly well. JaMychal Green simply wasn't strong enough to do so. There will be matchups in which Green needs to play over Zubac, as he did in last season's first-round matchup with the Golden State Warriors. That is one of the advantages of the Clippers' depth. They have optionality other teams lack.