Nuggets put clamps on Kawhi Leonard and Clippers fall behind early in Game 2 loss

The Clippers' Kawhi Leonard passes in front of the Nuggets' Nikola Jokic on Sept. 5, 2020.

When Gary Harris caught Nikola Jokic’s cross-court pass with six minutes remaining Saturday night, there wasn’t a Clippers defender within 10 feet.

Kawhi Leonard had run to the baseline to block Jerami Grant’s cut to the basket. Forward JaMychal Green slid closer to Paul Millsap near the top of the three-point arc. The rotations left Harris all alone behind the three-point line, in front of the Clippers’ bench.

It was the kind of shot the Clippers normally would live with. Since returning from an injured hip, Denver’s Harris had made just two of 11 three-pointers in three games.

But on this night, it was the shot that killed the Clippers’ comeback hopes.

Harris drilled the jumper, which followed a three-pointer he’d made two possessions earlier, and Denver’s lead — which had been cut from 23 points to five — was back to 13 en route to a 110-101 victory. It was just one of many timely second-half plays by Nuggets role players that helped tie this Western Conference semifinal series at one game apiece after their star duo of Jamal Murray and Jokic carried them in the first half.

Murray finished with 27 points and Jokic 26, but they combined for just nine points after halftime. Instead it was Millsap, a bystander in Game 1, who scored eight third-quarter points. It was Grant who swiped away late shots at the rim by Paul George and Green. And it was Harris making all three three-pointers he attempted in the fourth to finish with 13 points.

“He gave us a big boost on offense,” Murray said. “He's had a great transition from not playing to coming back and starting and being a big part of what we do.”

The Nuggets' Gary Harris (14), Jerami Grant (9) and Paul Millsap (4) celebrate their team's 110-101 win.
The Nuggets' Gary Harris (14), Jerami Grant (9) and Paul Millsap celebrate their team's win. Harris' hot shooting in the fourth quarter was a key. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

George finished with 22 points and eight rebounds to lead the Clippers and Leonard had 10 rebounds and eight assists, but his 13 points came on 17 shots. Denver double-teamed Leonard whenever he touched the ball within a step of the paint and collapsed its defense into the paint to close easy passing lanes out of the traps.

It ended Leonard’s streak of 18 consecutive games with 20 or more points. He also failed to make a field goal in the second half for the first time in the postseason since April 30, 2015.

“Give the Nuggets credit,” he said. “They came in very aggressive tonight on both ends.”

The Clippers produced nearly as many turnovers (17) as assists (20) and their frustration lingered until the end, when starting guard Patrick Beverley was ejected after arguing a foul and earning two technicals.

In Thursday’s series-opening loss, Denver’s reserves were emotionless throughout the final quarter. In contrast, they jumped from their folding chairs to start Game 2 as they led 14-2, then 23-9. The Clippers didn’t settle for rushed, bad shots, they just couldn’t make any of their closest looks, as they missed seven of their first eight shots in the paint. George and Leonard combined to miss their first eight shots.

By the first quarter’s end, Murray and Jokic had scored 26 points — they combined for 27 in all of Game 1 — to create a 19-point lead. Denver was shooting 72%.

“We just couldn’t find the basket in the first quarter,” George said. “That was really the game.”

Yet Denver had been spry in the first quarter Thursday as well, while shooting nearly 60%; it was the second quarter in which their weary legs turned their perimeter defenders into matadors.

The Nuggets’ trouble in Game 2’s second quarter instead came from an unexpected source, considering their hot start: offense. A lineup of five perimeter shooters inserted by Doc Rivers seven minutes before halftime generated a single point in their nearly 90 seconds together, yet pitched a shutout defensively. With Denver scoreless for four minutes, the Clippers crept within 13. Yet they still ended the half with more turnovers (12) than assists (11), with George and Leonard responsible for half the turnovers. Denver’s 72 points were one shy of tying a franchise playoff record set 35 years before.

Denver went cold in the third quarter, making just two of 11 three-pointers and 27% of its shots overall, keyed by the Clippers’ adjustment on Murray.

“They blitzed me on pick-and-rolls and handoffs and stuff,” Murray said. “Just trying to box me in. I had a couple bad turnovers and put my guys in a bad spot. … They did a good job mixing it up on me and keeping me off balance.”

But given an opportunity to close the gap, the Clippers’ offense flailed, missing all six of their three-pointers in the third quarter.

“We just refused to move the ball and make simple plays,” Rivers said. “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.”

George appeared to hyperextend his right leg while making a floater with nine minutes to play to cut the deficit to 10. He walked into the ensuing timeout wincing, favoring the leg, but returned immediately and dove to the floor for a loose ball. When he slithered to the rim for a layup on the next possession, the Nuggets’ lead was down to single digits for the first time in 33 minutes.

Seconds later, a three-pointer by George brought his teammates off the bench. It was their last feel-good moment of the evening. Denver scored the next 10 points, including the two three-pointers by Harris.

“We will be better for Game 3,” George said. “There’s no pep talk for it. It’s the playoffs. We got to be ready. We’ve got to come out a lot stronger and we’ll be up for the fight.”

Three takeaways on the Clippers

— Unhappy with the defensive pressure on Denver’s Nikola Jokic, coach Doc Rivers turned to JaMychal Green at center often. “I thought he was really the only one who showed Jokic any physicality,” Rivers said.

— Denver packed the paint defensively. After scoring 66 points in the paint in Game 1, the Clippers had 42 on Saturday.

— Patrick Beverley played 15 minutes before his ejection, three more than in Game 1 as he returns from a calf injury.

Greif reported from Los Angeles.