The Denver Nuggets had just won Game 7 of their first-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz, and head coach Michael Malone rightfully gave a significant slice of the credit to guard Gary Harris.
“Gary Harris. We don’t win this game without Gary, obviously.”
Without Gary, it’s highly unlikely the Nuggets would still be alive to fight another day to continue their championship pursuit in the NBA bubble at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where they have now stayed for over 10 weeks.
Tipping off tonight against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, the Nuggets make their first return to that high of a stage since 2009, when a matchup of different incarnations of the same two opponents saw Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups fall in six games Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
Now facing three-time champion LeBron James and seven-time All-Star Anthony Davis’s Lakers squad, Denver’s challenge will be no less formidable than it was 11 years ago.
Malone’s comments came after Harris had just made a series of two defensive plays which effectively sealed Denver’s first-round win in a historic comeback from a series deficit of three games to one – a feat they would pull off again even more improbably against Kawhi Leonard’s Los Angeles Clippers, who along with the Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks were among the three teams most heavily favored to win the Finals.
As Royce O’Neal got Joe Ingles inbound pass with 22 seconds remaining and the Nuggets up 80 to 78, Harris stuck like glue to Utah guard Donovan Mitchell, denying him the chance to receive the ball, and forcing the Jazz to use their final, critical timeout. Harris then stole the ball from Mitchell on a drive with under 10 seconds remaining, and Denver dodged Utah’s final bullet as Mike Conley’s desperation three-pointer rimmed out at the buzzer.
The sequence was one of many clutch plays to come on both ends of the court for Gary Harris, the importance of which is impossible to overstate for the Nuggets.
Harris missed nearly six months of action due first to the NBA coronavirus suspension and then to a nagging hip injury had missed all of Denver’s seeding games and the first five games of the Jazz series before finally making his return in Game 6.
From the start of Denver’s arrival in the bubble it was unclear when or if either he or Will Barton III would be able to play at all. (Barton subsequently left the bubble to rehabilitate his knee injury, and while there is a possibility he could return to action, there as yet is no timetable.)
So when Harris finally made the progression from “out” to “questionable” to making his post-hiatus debut in Game 6 of the Utah series, it was immensely welcome news for a team that was down three games to two and in need of a boost.
And Harris’ impact in that game was felt immediately, as he stepped on the court with the Nuggets down seven points in the first quarter and facing their second elimination game in a row.
Coming off the bench with the rest of the reserve unit plus Jamal Murray (who was on his way to his second 50-point game of the series), Denver orchestrated a 34 to 22-point run which put them up five points and gave them a lead they would not relinquish for the rest of the game.
While Harris had just four points in that stretch, he wasted no time in starting to make life miserable for Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson, both of whom and been inflicting serious damage on the Nuggets.
After putting up an astonishingly putrid 127.4 defensive rating through their first five playoff games per NBA.com (for context, the Cleveland Cavaliers had the worst defensive rating this season at 114.8, and Denver was more than 12 points per 100 possessions worse than that), the Nuggets clamped down and improved it dramatically to 101.6 in the final two games of the Utah series, and in all nine games following Harris’ return have maintained at a very good 106.5 (more context: the best overall defensive rating in the current playoffs is the Boston Celtics’ 104.0).
While Paul Millsap may have been the Nuggets’ defensive captain in the three years since they signed him as a free agent, the evidence is quickly piling up this postseason that Gary Harris is the defensive glue which binds the team’s overall efforts into a cohesive whole.
“To not play for 6 months, come back and then make that kind of impact in 2 games, that’s for his team right there,” Murray said after Denver’s first-round win. “He’s the best defender I know when he guards me in practice.”
When future NBA analysts attempt to retroactively dissect what it was about the current Nuggets team that made them so tough-minded and resilient as to come back twice from three-one series deficits, Harris’ role in making impactful defensive plays with intensity and energy should not be overlooked.
But it isn’t only on defense where Harris has made his mark.
In Denver’s Conference Semifinals win over the Clippers, Harris was the team’s third-leading scorer with 10.7 points per game, and their second-best (and third most voluminous) three-point shooter at 41.9%. And in a testament to the efficiency of his two-way play, Harris is second overall and first among starters on the Nuggets in net rating this postseason at 5.1.
Harris has made a positive impact on offense with just as many big moments as his clutch defensive plays, coming up with big fourth quarter plays again:
As the longest-tenured player on the Denver Nuggets roster, much like Harris’ defense is the bond that meshes the team’s defense together, the apparent ease and quickness with which he has established his offensive game this postseason flows from the well-established chemistry he has with his teammates, most especially Murray and Nikola Jokic, who he has played together with for four and five seasons, respectively.
After two years of shooting struggles, some were not expecting much offensive production from Harris, but Jokic had no such doubts.
“That’s what he do for 5 years I’m playing with him, you know,” Jokic reflected after the Nuggets’ series win over the Jazz. “He’s a really good, competitive player, so he didn’t surprise me.”
What did surprise many (including myself) was how well Harris guarded the much bigger and taller Paul George (an effort Malone described as “terrific”).
Against the Lakers, the ability of Harris – who is charitably listed as six-foot-four – to guard taller opponents will inevitably be put to the test, as he will likely draw assignments on Alex Caruso, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma and perhaps on switches even LeBron James, all of whom have height and length (and in some cases strength) advantages.
Additionally, the Lakers’ roster is better equipped to make life difficult for Jokic, which in turn will elevate the importance of Harris and others outside the Jokic-Murray duo such as Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap and Michael Porter Jr., to hit the open shots they get when the primary ball handlers are doubled.
In many ways, Murray was the decisive X-Factor who swung both the Jazz and Clippers series to Denver’s favor, and the Nuggets will need all from him they can get if they are to outlast the Lakers in a seven-game series.
If he, along with Grant, Millsap and Torrey Craig can again form the energetic, swarming core of a defense which at least slows down James and Davis as it did with Leonard and George, and if he and Denver’s other secondary scorers can hit their open shots to make the Lakers’ defense pay for doubling Jokic or Murray, then the Nuggets just might have a shot at beating the odds.
If not, it could be a short series.
But the “Harris as X-Factor” situation is a microcosm of Denver’s larger emerging identity as the scrappy, resilient, underdog, world-beating spoilers of the 2020 NBA Playoffs. So while their chances may be slim, if this team has taught us anything, it’s that nothing can be put past them.