After facing back to back 3-1 series deficits, four in a row including the 2019 playoffs, the Denver Nuggets have an opportunity to claw their way into another series in Game 7 Tuesday night. First and most importantly, give Denver their due. All the talk has been levied towards the Clippers in either a positive or negative fashion. This Denver team is GOOD, they’re not a fluke.
While the trio of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. have commanded the headlines, and rightfully so, I have to point out the play of Gray Harris. The comeback against Utah and resurgence against the Clippers have been a collective effort, but Harris’ individual play has brought a new dimension that this team desperately missed in the Bubble prior to his return to play.
Normally when ruminating on wing defense, you picture herculean efforts at the point of attack. Gary Harris more than occasionally fits that mold.
Jordan Clarkson torched the Denver defense over the first five games of the series, scoring over 19ppg on just shy of 62% true shooting. In the final two games with Harris back in the lineup, Clarkson shot a paltry 39% from the field and 18% from three.
However, Harris’ presence has been most noteworthy through his off-ball contributions.
Collapsing the Lane
Both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are fantastic drivers to the rim. As a rover Gary Harris has expertly mucked up driving lanes, forcing passes out or to knock dribble penetration off course and back out to the perimeter.
This is excellent defensive execution from Torrey Craig to keep Kawhi in front of him. In tandem with Harris’ stunt towards the paint, they force Kawhi into a contested shot off his back foot. Kawhi is one of the very best players in the game, so he still hits some of these shots, but preventing easier drives to the rim has been huge for the Nuggets in this series.
Harris collapsing the lane off of JaMychal Green prevents George from driving the lane and into a tougher shot and miss along the baseline.
Millsap has struggled in the the bubble, particularly in the playoffs. With Millsap on the court, the Nuggets are -10.8 pp100 on nearly 600 possessions per Cleaning the Glass. Harris allows Millsap to not be alone on an island even though the Clippers are targeting him in isolation. Without Harris, the Nuggets do not have a wing with the quickness and awareness to stunt and recover.
Again, Harris stunts towards the middle to force Paul George into a difficult shot and sags back to Morris when PG posts up. Murray has a solid defensive base, cutting off the initial drive. George resets to drive middle, but with Harris stalking in wait, he posts up instead. If Harris isn’t in great help position, PG likely is able to drive middle and kick the ball around leading to a more open shot.
Close Outs & X’ing Out
Stunting has been such a key aspect of Harris’ contributions, but his ability to recover and close out are what allow him to help to the extent he does.
Harris rotates to the paint in anticipation of Harrell coming down the lane. As soon as the ball swings, he tracks back to Paul George and fights well through Beverley’s pindown. If Harris gets even slightly lost off-ball, that’s a wide open Paul George three.
Harris’ ability to close out has allowed for the Nuggets to add a defensive wrinkle that’s allowed them to pack the paint.
Harris flies off of Jordan Clarkson to close out to the corner on Ingles. If Ingles swings the ball to Clarkson, Murray would come out to Clarkson. In essence, the paths of Harris and Murray would cross on their closeouts, hence “X’ing out.”
Here’s an example of the X-out against the Clippers. Harris rotates low and tags Zubac, forcing the pass out. Murray closes to the corner, and Harris X’es out to Beverly.
The Nuggets lack rim-protection outside the occasional Jerami Grant weak-side block. This strategy allows Denver to take away some easy looks at the rim while still aggressively trapping PnR’s. You can thank Gary Harris for the efficacy of X’ing out.
The subliminal strategies and minutiae of the game are exceedingly enticing to dive into. But, Harris’ intensity on the court has popped off the screen.
This off-ball awareness and quick dart to force the ball out of bounds makes me freakin giddy. Little plays like this throughout a game add up, and Gary routinely makes them. This could’ve been a simple Green layup or dunk, instead the Clippers have to in bounds with minimal time on the clock.
Gary’s effort combined with his awareness are a spectacle to behold. He completely denies the ball to Clarkson off the hand-off. Perimeter defenders often get caught sleeping on plays like this, but not Harris.
I can’t tell you how many times I re-watched this sequence. I just sat in my room laughing to myself at how Harris makes the Clippers look silly across two straight possessions.
He’s had a decent offensive series, 10 points per game on 48.7/44/75 splits. Not bad for a low-volume guard, especially considering his shooting woes over the past few seasons. But, his impact has been so much more than his offensive production, any shots he makes are a bonus.
The difference with Harris on the court is tangible through the screen.
The Denver Nuggets are more than a good story, they’re a very good, and incredibly talented team. They have the chance to win a second straight 7 game series after coming from down 3-1 and advance to the Conference Finals for the first time in over a decade.
Don’t overlook the part Gary Harris has played in this series. He and the Nuggets have one more guaranteed act tonight in their playoff concerto, and I wouldn’t be shocked if we have an encore in the next round.