Their exit delayed because of postgame television interviews, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were the last two Clippers to leave AdventHealth Arena’s court late Monday night. As they walked together toward the locker room, a receiving line of clapping, hollering coaches greeted their approach.
The celebration after the Clippers’ 113-107 victory in Game 3 of this Western Conference semifinal against Denver belied how closely they had come to a far different outcome.
In these playoffs, the second-seeded Clippers often have been more mercurial than masterful, and both sides were on display yet again.
On the multiple out-of-bounds plays in which their defense was stunningly beat back for Denver baskets, they looked disengaged.
Yet amid the runs that pulled them within two at halftime, and toward victory in the fourth quarter, they appeared dominant.
At times, they failed to make the simple plays, such as boxing out under the basket, or communicating on who was guarding whom.
Yet their victory also was saved by a moment of almost unbelievable difficulty. With 1:47 remaining and the Clippers up six points, Denver guard Jamal Murray rose for a right-handed dunk, only to have Leonard rise with him and block the force of Murray’s attempt with just the middle finger on his mitt-sized left hand.
“That’s an extra-long middle finger,” George said. “It kept growing or something.”
And with it, so grows the Clippers’ 2-1 lead. George scored 32 points and made five three-pointers. Leonard said George led the team on both ends, all night.
“The mental lapses are the ones that are really frustrating,” coach Doc Rivers said. “We had a lot of mental lapses today and we got a way with it, but you can’t be great and do that every night.”
Leonard’s block was part of a quarter the Nuggets would like to forget, after making just one of their last nine three-pointers. The Clippers ended on a 12-6 run. Leonard made just one of seven fourth-quarter shots but finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six assists.
The closing minutes echoed the 12-2 run to end the second quarter.
“They turned up the pressure,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “To me the story of the game was transition. Game 1 was one-on-one defense, Game 2 was their offensive rebounding. Tonight they had 30 fast-break points, which is unacceptable.”
Only a day before, as the Clippers reviewed video of their Game 2 loss, they watched as self-inflicted wounds allowed the series to be tied. Those nearly sunk them Monday, as well. But when they needed to tighten the defense that is all-NBA in potential but often inconsistent in practice, they were clutch.
Lou Williams, a guard never known for his defense, poked away two second-quarter steals to reel back in Denver's lead. George locked down Murray. And Ivica Zubac, before fouling out late in the fourth quarter, held Denver center Nikola Jokic at bay enough in the second half to disrupt the Nuggets’ once-rolling offense.
Cue the hallway celebration.
“We’re not a perfect team by any means,” George said. “This game is made on stretches. One team gets hot, gets going, other team rallies back. But this game is always predicated on whoever plays defense first, wins, and I thought we incorporated that to put this game away.”
Jokic scored 32 points, with 12 rebounds and eight assists and Murray added 14 points.
Though the Clippers made 56% of their first-half shots, and Leonard often avoided the double-teams that stymied him in Game 2 by quickly locating open teammates for passes, they trailed by two at halftime because of defensive problems that started within the first three minutes, when Zubac was whistled for two fouls.
The Clippers then turned to JaMychal Green off the bench to defend Jokic, but he earned two fouls within the next four minutes. That left Montrezl Harrell, the NBA’s sixth-man award winner, to anchor the defense — a strategy that often has backfired in the playoffs. Soon, Nuggets center Mason Plumlee was rising to catch a lob over Harrell’s head for a dunk.
With six minutes remaining before halftime, after Leonard traveled — one of his team’s seven first-half turnovers — the Clippers were caught flat-footed by a quick inbound pass by Jokic to Gary Harris, who beat all five Clippers for a dunk.
In the final seconds of the third quarter, Jerami Grant beat the Clippers back on defense again for a layup and an 88-84 lead.
Leonard called the team’s litany of puzzling moments “very frustrating.”
“We need to be consistent throughout the whole 48 minutes but you got to give Denver credit, they are a good basketball team, he said.
Each team had chances to secure the victory late. Denver took a 97-90 lead, then allowed eight unanswered points. Allowed to stay in the game after picking up his fifth foul, Zubac caught a pass from Leonard and finished with an emphatic dunk for a 101-all tie with 4:51 remaining. Less than a minute later, he’d fouled out.
Denver’s Harris air-balled a three-pointer on the next possession — only to have Murray streak in to save the rebound and find Grant for a layup after none of the Clippers boxed him out. George slammed the ball. Rivers threw his hands in the air in exasperation.
After it was over there was frustration that they had contributed to what was nearly their own demise. But it was followed by celebration, and a series lead that looked doubtful throughout the night.
“Guys just decided that we weren’t going to lose tonight,” Williams said.
- Williams had missed 14 consecutive three-pointers — a drought that covered more than four games — before making a shot from the corner in the third quarter.
- Green hurt his leg early in the fourth quarter but, in a positive sign for the rest of the Clippers’ series, was available to return to the game.
- After making five of their first nine three-pointers, the Clippers made only six of their last 22.
Greif reported from Los Angeles.