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Spartans NBA Check-In: Gary Harris in the Western Conference Finals

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Seven Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

For a minute there, things were getting dicey. Before the Denver Nuggets stormed back from a three-games-to-one deficit in their series with the Los Angeles Clippers to advance to the Western Conference Finals, it appeared that Michigan State‘s streak of having an alum (forever a Spartan) in the Western Conference Finals would be broken. Draymond Green carried the standard for five consecutive seasons with the Golden State Warriors (2014-15 through 2018-19), but with the Warriors’ season over before it began with season-long injuries to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors did not have a chance to defend their Western Conference championship mantle in earnest.

But a number of other former Michigan State players entered the NBA’s Orlando bubble with the chance to advance to the playoffs: Bryn Forbes with San Antonio, Gary Harris with Denver, and Jaren Jackson Jr. with Memphis. In gutting fashion, Bryn and the Spurs had their Izzo-esque streak of 23 consecutive playoff appearances come to an end in the bubble, with Bryn sadly not playing a minute in the bubble due to a hip-flexor-and/or-quad injury. Jaren Jackson Jr., in similarly gutting fashion, had his season cut-short due to injury as he suffered a meniscus tear that required season-ending surgery. Jaren had been playing some of the best basketball of his career in the bubble, and the Grizzlies sorely missed his presence in losing a play-in game against the Portland Trailblazers. The Blazers lost to the Lakers in a “gentleman’s-sweep” (4-1), and Grizzlies fans and the organization can only wonder if the Grizzlies would have put up a better fight against the Lakers had Jackson not gotten injured (hint: yes, they matched up exceedingly well against the Lakers). Spartan hopes to keep the streak alive have rested on Gary Harris’ shoulders (and the rest of the Nuggets’ shoulders) since.

Gary Harris’ Regular Season and Injury

Gary had an up-and-down season this year largely due to injuries that have plagued his consistency on the court — just when he would get back into a bit of a rhythm he would get injured again.

Gary’s career has been in a holding pattern the last two years for this exact reason. As his career stats show, when he is healthy and can play upwards of 55 games Gary is a REALLY good NBA player:

Gary Harris. Career Per-Game Stats

But the last couple of years, his development has been stalled by injuries, which have caused his shooting percentages to dip. What has never been in doubt is Gary’s defensive acumen, which has translated from Michigan State to the NBA seamlessly.

Gary’s length, tenacity, impeccable footwork, understanding of tendencies, and competitiveness make him one of the better wing-defenders in the league. While other names get more publicity, Harris goes about hounding and harassing great offensive players on a nightly basis. The challenge for Gary is that Denver has long been a bad defensive team overall. Adding Paul Millsap, Torrey Craig, and Jerami Grant in the last few seasons, combined with hints that Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, and Will Barton were becoming more interested in playing defense, however, helped Denver achieve a top-three seed in the West this year. Then Will Barton and Gary Harris got injured. Then COVID happened.

Gary had been dealing with a major hip injury since the NBA’s initial shutdown, and that would have kept him out of the playoffs entirely had the season continued as previously scheduled. The injury was so significant that it kept him out of the restart-bubble entirely, and out of the playoffs through the first five games of Denver’s series with the Utah Jazz.

Denver had not played particularly well against the Jazz through the first few games of the series, and after the Nuggets lost game four to go down three games to one to Utah, despite Jamal Murray scoring 50 points, things looked bleak. But in game five, Murray scored 42, Jokic had 31, and the Nuggets got a third and fourth scorer in Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. and found enough extra possessions to get a win.

Gary Harris’ Return:

The Nuggets struggles in the Utah series revolved, primarily, around defense — they could not stop Donovan Mitchell or anyone else in the Utah offense. A particular thorn in Denver’s side had been the play of Jordan Clarkson off the bench; Clarkson had scored 18, 26, 11, 24 and 17 points in the first five games of the series, scoring efficiently and generally torturing the Nuggets’ reserve lineups. But when Harris was announced as available for game six, and from the moment he checked in, things began to change for the Nuggets.

Harris ended game six plus-14 (in plus/minus) and generally helped change Denver’s mindset. He defended Mitchell and Clarkson for most of his minutes and while Mitchell still had a big game Harris made him work; Clarkson, on the other hand, immediately felt the impact of Gary’s defense — he scored 11 points on an eye-watering five-of-14 shooting night.

The Nuggets won game six setting up the pivotal series denouement. And game seven only got worse for both Mitchell and Clarkson. In a game where neither team was particularly efficient or great (except for the all-universe Nikola Jokic — seriously check out some Jokic highlights, he is a truly delightful player to watch, who simply owns elimination games), Mitchell mustered a series worst 22 points on 22 shots, and Clarkson was held to a series-low 10 points on nine shots. While Harris did not have a great shooting game, he hounded both guys defensively all game, particularly Mitchell in the fourth quarter, and made a season-saving defensive play in the final seconds of the game. You can see in the highlights that his shooting rhythm is still not there, but man oh man... Mitchell and Clarkson are probably still having nightmares about Gary on defense. Notice on the last sequence, Gary not only steals the ball from Mitchell, without fouling, but also recovers to contest Mike Conley’s last-second jumper after Murray and Craig attempted to throw the game away.

Western Conference Semi-Finals: the LA Clippers

Denver came into their series against the LA Clippers as heavy underdogs. LA a favorite of most folks to win the NBA title (or at least get to the Western Conference Finals) had cruised through their series with the Dallas Mavericks once Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic got a bit injured (although Dallas’ ability to cause the Clippers problems proved a harbinger of things to come).

The Clippers have Kawhi Leonard, widely regarded as a top-five player in the league, Paul George, another widely regarded all-star, the best bench-scoring duo in the league (including multiple sixth-man-of-the-year winner Lou Williams, and this year’s winner Montrezl Harrell), size, veteran shooters off the bench, versatility, and swagger. LA was per-ordained to win this series.

And everything was going according to plan through the first four games of the series. Game one was a beat-down. In game two, the Nuggets responded with a solid win with Jokic and Murray leading the way and Gary chipping in 13 crucial points in a starting role. The Nuggets got six guys in double figures, and held Leonard and George to inefficient scoring nights, which proved to be the recipe for success in the series. Games three and four saw the Clippers reassert themselves with bench scoring, better defense on Murray, and efficient outings from their stars. Despite the strong position they found themselves in, there were clear warning signs from the Nuggets: Gary Harris had settled in with his continued excellent defense, but he had started to find the range a bit scoring in double figures in both game three and game four and the Clippers had consistently given open looks to many of the Nuggets secondary players, who simply hadn’t knocked down shots.

Then the Nuggets won three games in a row, with each victory seeing the Nuggets come back from large deficits (15, 19, and 16 point deficits, respectively), each coming back from being down in the second half, and each one seeing the Nuggets’ strength in numbers overcome the Clippers perceived depth and star-power. In games five and six the Nuggets had five players score in double figures, while the Clippers only had four, and in game seven the Nuggets defense, led all series long by Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, and Torrey Craig’s defense on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, forced the Nuggets two all-stars into a combined 24 points on 10-of-38 shooting.

In all three games, Jokic and Murray were scintillating offensively, but in all three games other guys chipped in on offense in major ways — primarily by hitting the open three-point shots they had missed in the three losses. In game five, it was Millsap, Grant, and Monte Morris. In game six, it was Harris, Porter Jr., and Morris. And in game seven, it was Harris and Grant. After averaging four points per game vs. Utah, Harris bumped his scoring to 10.5 points per game vs. the Clippers including five games in double figures and two significant scoring contributions in games six and seven where he score 16 and 14 points in addition to playing his dynamic defense and creating for others. For the series, Gary averaged nearly two steals per game, two-and-a-half assists per game, and two rebounds per game. Most importantly though, as I mentioned, Harris’ defense, primarily on George and Leonard (along with Grant and Craig) became stifling, particularly in the deciding game seven.

Just watch these highlights and enjoy.

Game 6:

Game 7:

Full game highlights for game 7:

As you can see in these highlights (which simply do not do Gary’s defensive performances justice), long a staple of his offensive game (thanks in part to Tom Izzo’s tutelage — this is a consistent part of his development of guards), Gary Harris’ off-ball movement tortured the Clippers and where he was not finishing or hitting shots earlier in the series, in games six and seven Gary drilled them.

What a series by the Nuggets and what an incredible job by Gary Harris; after not having any lead-in or warm-up games, his defense and timely offensive contributions were instrumental in getting the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals.

Looking Ahead: the Match-up with the Lakers

While the LA Lakers should be favored to win the series with the Nuggets. I really do believe the Nuggets have an attainable win-condition for the series. I also firmly believe that while the Lakers have played well in their series wins over the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets, Denver will present them a challenge they have not faced — a difference in category rather than quantity. And many media members are foolishly comparing the Nuggets to those two teams. Allow me to explain:

  1. The Lakers’ strengths are in their two best players — LeBron James and Anthony Davis — and in their generally solid team-defense.
  2. Against Portland and Houston, the Lakers were able to exploit the major weaknesses of their opponents’ lack of size or effective matchups against either LeBron or AD. Portland had Gary Trent Jr. (who has had to spend a year and a half learning how to play defense after not learning this essential aspect of basketball in his lone year in college) and Carmelo Anthony, as the primary defenders against LeBron James (simply not good enough), and Wenyen Gabriel, Jusuf Nurkic, and Hassan Whiteside matched up against AD (though Nurkic is a good defender he often got worn down by defending LA’s other bigs; the other two need not be spoken of with regard to their overall defensive impact other than to say they fared poorly). Against Houston, LeBron and AD had tougher defenders in PJ Tucker (Draymond-esque without the offensive skill or comfort defending guards), Robert Covington, Jeff Green, and Danuel House — all capable defenders in their own rights, but significantly disadvantaged against the bigger, longer, stronger, and more explosive LA stars.
  3. The LA Lakers benefited by playing against two offenses with MAJOR flaws. While both teams have superlative individual contributors — particularly Damian Lillard for Portland and James Harden for Houston — neither offense predicates its scoring on ball-movement, or, most-importantly, player-movement. If you watch Portland and Houston play, when their two big stars give up the ball (as they were routinely forced to do against LA, who wisely doubled both Lillard and Harden) neither guy all. Both Harden and Lillard are habitual pass-and-stand players rather than pass-and-move players. In contrast to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson of the Warriors (who have tortured LeBron-led defenses for years), these kinds of offenses — those reliant on iso-ball and not on player-movement, especially the movement of star players, which forces defenses to adjust and shift to respond to the star player’s gravity — are simply incredibly easy to defend in the NBA playoffs.
  4. Neither Portland nor Houston had role-players who could consistently step-up on offense and defense. In LA’s wins over Portland, the Trailblazers’ role-players simply could not match the Lakers’ role-players on both ends; when they had good offensive games they were porous on defense, and vice-versa. Houston suffered from similar problems.
  5. Finally, and this contributes to the fourth point, above, neither Portland nor Houston had a second star-player. Neither CJ McCollum nor Jusuf Nurkic nor Carmelo Anthony could stand and be counted as a second star for Portland, and the less that is said about Russell Westbrook for Houston, the better. Denver, on the other hand have two bona fide stars in Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.

In contrast to the much-lauded and hyped Portland and Houston teams, Denver has the bodies to match-up against both LeBron — Grant, Craig, Millsap, MPJ (even with his inconsistent defense he is good on the boards and will force LeBron to defend him) — and AD with Jokic, Mason Plumlee, Millsap, Grant, possibly Noah Vonleh, and possibly even Bol Bol might get a shot against AD (given Wenyen Gabriel’s limited success against AD in Portland’s lone win).

Denver also has the role-players and the offensive style (ball and player movement-oriented offense) to really hurt the Lakers if LA focuses too much on Murray or Jokic. Where Portland and Houston’s “others” did not always hit shots, Denver’s guys have proven that they will against one of the best defenses in the league in the Clippers.

Denver, as I mentioned, also has two true stars on their team, and while Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Danny Green will all pose a challenge, collectively, for Jamal Murray none of them are, on paper, anywhere near the level of Kawhi Leonard or Paul George as individual defenders. More importantly, none of those “others” for the Lakers are truly scary offensive players—all of them will hit shots if left open, and can create some offense for others, but none of them are at the level of individual offense that Donovan Mitchell, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, or Lou Williams are at... and Denver has vanquished all of those better guards. Davis, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, and Markieff Morris will all challenge Jokic (particularly Davis), but Nikola has grown up in these playoffs in a real way, and I do not expect him to be cowed, intimidated, or stifled on offense, and I fully expect him to force Davis into plenty of tougher-than-expected possessions. In short, I do not envision LA fully shutting down both stars in any given game, and I do not envision them even succeeding consistently to shut down either player—they are both simply too good.

Finally, Gary Harris has the chance to really decide this series for a few reasons:

  1. Gary’s defense on any given guard will be pivotal. I bet we see a LOT of Gary Harris covering Rajon Rondo, whose ability to pick apart the Rockets proved pivotal in turning that series into a stroll. Putting Harris on Rondo, or on one of the LA shooters, and effectively eliminating one player’s offensive impact will prove far more disruptive than many will anticipate.
  2. Gary’s help-defense, always superb, particularly on timely-doubles and digs down to the post, will be essential in bothering both LeBron and AD. His help defense in passing lanes will also be crucial, as both LeBron and AD are big fans of risky passes across defenses — I predict Harris, the football player, will get a lot of “turnovers-for-touchdowns” in Izzo’s parlance.
  3. Finally, Harris will really hurt the Lakers with his offense on-ball and off. Gary’s attacking of the paint against Utah and the LA Clippers proved crucial in both series. Even when he did not finish at the rim, he drew fouls, collapsed the defense, got the defense into rotations, and generally imposed his aggressive attitude onto the defense, forcing them to worry about his slashing and driving. Additionally, Gary’s off-ball movement, and relocation around the three-point arc will prove pivotal against a Lakers defense that can fall-asleep off-ball, over-help, and generally ball-watch in transition — here’s looking at you Kyle Kuzma, LeBron James, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dwight Howard, JR Smith, Dion Waiters, JaVale McGee, Markieff Morris, Anthony Davis, Quinn Cook, Talen Horton-Tucker (pretty much everyone but Rondo and Caruso).

The Nuggets have another up-hill battle ahead of them, but Murray, Jokic, Harris, and the rest of the team have been here before. Twice. This is the only team to ever come back from a three-to-one deficit twice in the same playoffs. The Nuggets are battle tested and fearless, and have a certain Spartan mental toughness.

I am picking the Nuggets in seven games. PPTPW. Show ‘em Gary.