Whatever Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and the Los Angeles Clippers did offensively against Jamal Murray and the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, they seemed to do the exact opposite in Game 2. A sluggish defensive start also didn’t help matters.
The Nuggets evened the series up at 1-1 after a 110-101 victory over the Clippers on Saturday night. Murray led the way for Denver with 27 points and six assists on 10-of-21 shooting from the field. Nikola Jokic poured in 26 points, 18 rebounds, and four assists on 10-of-17 shooting.
Denver punched the Clippers in the mouth in the first quarter, grabbing a 44-25 lead after one while making 17-of-24 attempts, knocking down seven 3-pointers, and scoring seven points off six Clippers turnovers. Jokic scored 15 of his 26 points in the opening quarter, which included a perfect 3-of-3 shooting from beyond the arc. Murray scored 11 of his 27 points in the first as well.
Head coach Doc Rivers was critical of the first three Jokic triples, saying the Clippers’ defense left him wide open to take, and make, the confidence-building shots.
“Jokic had like 30 seconds to shoot those first three 3s,” an upset Doc Rivers said after the game. “He’s a good player to begin with and when we gift him nine points he’s just going to get more confident. I thought Murray was dominant and I thought Jokic was just as dominant in the first quarter.”
Clippers center Ivica Zubac, who scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds, took responsibility for allowing Jokic to get hot right away.
“We started the game with not a lot of energy,” Zubac said after his 20 minutes on the court. “They came out with energy. They hit us first and we just can’t allow a team to start a game with 44 points in the first quarter. After that, we tried, but you know, it was hard. Like some shots weren’t falling. We missed free throws and that first quarter really killed us, that 44 points.
“He’s one of the better offensive players in this league, he’s got a lot of moves and can shoot it from outside. But I didn’t start out the game right defensively. I allowed them to get the ball easy in the post. I was not physical with him like I’m supposed to. I’ve got to get to his body when they are running pick-and-roll for him and I’ve got to do a better job getting over the pin-downs and cross-screens. Overall, I didn’t do a good job defensively tonight. I’m going to watch the film, see where I can get better, and I’m going to bring it next game.”
After losing the first quarter 44-25, the Clippers won the second, third, and fourth quarters, outscoring Denver 76-66. The Nuggets shot just 35.8 percent from the field (24-of-67) in the final three periods, so the Clippers at least tightened up defensively after their awful start. The offense was a whole other issue.
The Clippers shot 40.9 percent from the field in Game 2, by far their worst shooting game of the year. No one epitomized their struggles more than Kawhi Leonard. Leonard had been ultra-efficient in the playoffs, averaging 32.3 points on 56.2 percent shooting from the field. He finished with 13 points in Game 2 on just 4-of-17 shooting from the field while also turning the ball over four times. Shots that Leonard had been hitting all season, and especially in the playoffs, bounced their way off the rim en route to his worst shooting playoff game since April 30, 2015.
“[They were] just more aggressive in their double teams, collapsing the paint, collapse into the paint well on drives,” Kawhi Leonard detailed as some of what he saw Denver do to slow him down. “A few easy ones didn’t fall early and that was it from there pretty much. We got into a lot of iso basketball. Basically dug ourselves in that hole.”
Leonard did have 10 rebounds and eight assists, helping his Clippers in ways other than scoring. Paul George finished with a team-high 22 points, but shot just 7-of-19 from the field. Marcus Morris added 11 points, but didn’t make a field goal until late in the fourth quarter, and Lou Williams shot just 6-of-16 from the field for 13 points
Rivers didn’t sound too upset after the loss, mostly because he knows what his team needs to do to bounce back and win Game 3. Falling in Game 2 could’ve been avoided, however, as Rivers believes his team just wasn’t the aggressor for most of the game.
“Honestly just thought they played more aggressive,” Rivers said. “They got into us the entire game. I thought offensively we just refused to move the ball and make simple plays. As beautiful as we moved the ball in Game 1, we were the exact opposite in Game 2. First quarter was bad defense. The next three quarters was bad offense.”
It wasn’t just the 40 percent shooting that resulted in a now tied series. It was the lack of ball movement and ball “popping,” as Rivers said at halftime. It was the 12 first-half turnovers, and 17 in total, that allowed the Nuggets to keep their lead from wire-to-wire.
“Each guy comes in and thinks he’s going to win the game for you,” Doc Rivers continued. “And what happens is it becomes an individual game. We had 17 turnovers and 20 assists. The 17 turnovers are a reflection of forcing too many plays instead of just letting the offense happen.”
Both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard agreed with their head coach postgame.
“I think we missed some shots,” George said. “We just couldn’t find the basket in the first quarter. That was really the game. Us not playing defense and allowing them rhythm and shots in the first quarter, and us not making shots was a big swing in the first quarter I think.”
Asked Paul George the same – “I don't think it was hard. I think we missed some shots. We just couldn't find the basket in the first quarter. That was really the game. Us not playing defense and allowing them rhythm and shots in the first quarter.”#Clippers pic.twitter.com/TGDSXGLvBY
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) September 6, 2020
The Nuggets focused on bringing more physicality to the matchup and making it tougher for the Clippers to score inside. In Game 1, LA scored 66 points in the paint on 20-of-29 shooting in the restricted area and 13-of-18 from in the paint outside of the restricted area. Denver did a much better job defending in Game 2, holding the Clippers to just 48 points in the paint while shooting 19-of-36 shooting inside the restricted area and 5-of-14 from non-restricted area of the paint.
Despite everything the Nuggets did and how poorly the Clippers played offensively, opportunities were still right there for the momentum shift. The Clippers cut the deficit to five points twice as it seemed Denver could fold under the pressure. Instead, Jamal Murray hit big shot after big to to maintain the lead and secure the victory.
“We just need to play hard ourselves,” Rivers said in closing. I thought they deserved to win in so many ways. They played with so much more force than us. They moved the ball. They trusted their offense and we didn’t do any of those things. It’s amazing we had a chance in the fourth to cut it to seven. I thought that was a huge missed call on JaMychal’s layup. I thought Jokic should have picked up his fifth foul. Wasn’t called. But other than that, I thought it was all Denver.”
The Clippers and Nuggets will face off in Game 3 of their second-round series on Monday night, where one team is going to take a big 2-1 lead. Expect a big bounce back game from Kawhi Leonard and LA.