PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference First Round; Game 1.
If there’s a controversy surrounding the effort of the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night, they’ll only have themselves to blame.
Los Angeles comes into the series as the No. 6 seed, yet will enjoy home-court advantage by virtue of having a better record than the third-seeded Nuggets. Denver earned the No. 3 seed by winning the Northwest Division, yet they finished the regular season with the same record as eighth-seeded Sacramento.
Due to the unusual circumstance of a division winner—which automatically gets a top-three seed—having a record no better than any other qualifying playoff team, the Clippers were put in a situation against Memphis last Tuesday where a loss would allow them to open the series at the Staples Center, but a win would force them to open against a much stronger Dallas team on the road.
Los Angeles lost, and speculation naturally followed that it intentionally lost the game, despite the denials of players and coaches.
But the Clippers would no doubt like to talk more about turnarounds than tank jobs, and there’s no better way for the team to prove it’s for real than to show its detractors that its success can extend to the playoffs as well.
Los Angeles’ regular season was filled with milestones and accomplishments, and it was their best since moving to California 28 years ago. It made the postseason for the first time since 1997 and had its most wins since 1975, when the franchise was still based in Buffalo.
The Clippers have not advanced to the second round since 1976, but their fluky home-court advantage could prove to turn the series: LA has won nine of its last 11 games over Denver at the Staples Center.
Denver won the first game of the season series 105-95 on Nov. 25, but Los Angeles took the next three, winning by an average of 17.6 points while shooting 53.3 percent from the field and outrebounding the Nuggets by 11.0 boards. LA rallied from a 22-point deficit for a 111-109 win on April 4 and handed the Nuggets their most lopsided loss of the season in a 112-79 rout on Jan. 28.
Despite their recent run of success against Anthony and Co., coach Mike Dunleavy knows if the Clippers are to win, they’ll need to slow the Nuggets down. Denver led the league in fastbreak points at 20.1, while LA allowed the fewest transition points at 9.8.
“It’s going to be a tough battle and a test of wills,” Dunleavy said. “They are the best fastbreak team in the league, and we give up the fewest fastbreak points. Something has got to give. If we don’t turn it over then maybe we can get set up on defense.”
Elton Brand led the league with 16 double-doubles when scoring at least 30 points, including one against the Nuggets on Jan. 27 when he finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds. Brand averaged 22.0 points on 53.1 percent shooting and 10.0 rebounds against Denver this season.
The Nuggets are making their third straight trip to the playoffs after winning their first division title since 1988, but they haven’t advanced to the second round since 1994.
“We have an opportunity to make some noise in the playoffs,” Denver coach George Karl said. “I think my team is ready. I think I’ve got some guys who want to win a playoff series.”
The Nuggets won’t be carrying in any momentum as they closed the regular season with four straight losses by an average of 13.3 points. Denver is the fifth-highest scoring team in the league averaging 100.3 points, but scored just 86.5 points during its skid.
The Nuggets have also lost five of their last six road games and turned the ball over a season-high 25 times in their 109-98 loss to the Seattle SuperSonics on Wednesday night.
Anthony is averaging 25.0 points against LA this season and scored 35 points on 11-of-17 shooting in their only win in November. He topped the 30-point mark 10 times in 16 games in March, but scored more than 30 points only once in eight games in April.
This will be the first meeting of the teams in the playoffs.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Nuggets - third seed, 44-38. Clippers - sixth seed, 47-35.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Nuggets - Anthony, 26.5 ppg; Camby, 11.9 rpg; Miller, 8.2 apg. Clippers - Brand, 24.7 ppg, 10.0 rpg; Cassell, 6.3 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Clippers, 3-1. The Clippers had their most lopsided win of the season in a 112-79 win on Jan. 28. Los Angeles shot 50.9 percent shooting while holding the Nuggets to 43.8 percent in the four-game series.