The Los Angeles Clippers are the more talented team in this Western Conference semi-final series. It’s obvious.
Denver, however, just plays harder. And smarter — they stick to Mike Malone’s well-prepared game plan and execute it. The Denver Nuggets do not quit. They play their best basketball when desperate, with their backs against the wall.
“I don’t know. That’s a good question,” Nikola Jokic responded when asked why it takes the threat of elimination to get the best out of Denver.
Whatever the reason, for two straight games that effort and execution sparked a Nuggets’ come-from-behind win. Denver was down 16 at the half and 19 in the third quarter of Game 6 Sunday and fought back for a 111-98 victory over the Clippers. They ripped the win out of L.A.’s hands.
The Clippers and Nuggets are headed to a Game 7 on Tuesday night. The winner will face LeBron James and the Lakers, who are sitting with their feet up, resting and preparing.
“We don’t have pressure. I think the whole pressure is on them,” Jokic said, noting this is the fourth straight playoff series for Denver to go seven games.
What has Denver done differently the past two games, particularly in their comebacks?
“We’ve just really talked about more energy, more ball movement, more body movement, and be a lot harder to guard,” Denver coach Mike Malone said. “And the guys have done that.”
Denver has done that, their ball movement has been spectacular, and when the Clippers lose defensive focus the Nuggets go on a run.
It also helped the Clippers hit a mid-game shooting slump, going 0-of-10 from the floor during the Nuggets’ 17-0 third-quarter run.
“We just went cold. We went cold in that third quarter. That’s it,” Leonard said.
For the game Paul George had 33 points on 21 shot attempts, Leonard had 25 on 18 shots. The rest of the Clippers combined to shoot 35.8% for the game.
Denver got 34 points and 14 rebounds from Jokic, plus 21 points from Jamal Murray (who had a rough spill in the second half going to the rim then having Paul George fall on him).
There will be a lot of talk about pressure on the Clippers — in more than 50 years as an organization they have never reached the conference finals. In the locker room, the Clippers have shrugged that off, saying basically, “those teams are not us.”
True. These Clippers have a two-time Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard on the roster. However, his highly-focused killer attitude has not permeated this Clippers roster. In Toronto, he came to a 50+ win team that fought hard, and he put them over the top. This Clippers’ team looks like what it is — a talented group that did not get to play a lot together during the season and develop chemistry.
Los Angeles does not hunt mismatches or attack them when they get them (the Clippers just kind of do their thing). It does not consistently rebound well. L.A. loses defensive focus. The Clippers do not consistently drag weak defenders (Michael Porter Jr.) into actions.
Denver does all of those things right — the continuity of this roster, that the core has been together for a few years, shows. They execute the game plan. When Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams are on the court, they are being forced to defend pick-and-rolls every time down the court.
In Game 6, Denver was +12 in when Jokic was on the court at the same time as the Clippers Harrell — and that was just in the second half. Denver took advantage of its opportunities.
Talent tends to win out in the NBA. Maybe it will in Game 7. But what we can expect is Denver will not be phased by the moment, they will hustle, and they will execute the game plan.
Can the Clippers do that? If not, they will be going home earlier than expected.