Since teams arrived at the NBA’s Disney World campus near Orlando, Fla., eight weeks ago, they have lived in close quarters with their opponents. Coaches see their peers in hotel hallways. Players bump into friends on other teams outside their meal rooms.
It extends to postgame interviews. Following the Clippers’ 111-105 loss to Denver in Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal Friday, a loss that cuts the Clippers’ best-of-seven series lead to 3-2, both coaches gave their closing remarks while separated by only a few feet and a wall. When Doc Rivers had finished cataloging the night’s errors and left his room, Mike Malone’s voice could be heard clearly from the other side.
And just like that for the Clippers, this series might be too close for comfort.
Denver rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win one postseason series already. “I know there’s not a lot of belief,” Malone said. “We believe in ourselves.”
Five takeaways from Game 5:
1. Marcus Morris Sr.’s tussle with Denver forward Paul Millsap during a second-quarter box-out woke up the Nuggets, who trailed by 16 points immediately before Millsap earned a technical foul after the dust-up.
Was it any coincidence that was the Clippers’ largest lead of the night? The Nuggets didn’t seem to think so.
Paul Millsap on what changed in the game: “They started running their mouth a little bit. It kinda woke us up.”— Mike Singer (@msinger) September 12, 2020
Said they’ve been talking all series.
“I know the word is we’re soft. We’re not gonna let these guys come in and push us around. We want to prove a point.”
2. The technical foul was Morris’ third of the postseason, and seven triggers an automatic one-game suspension. The NBA can also levy a one-game suspension for two flagrant 2 fouls in a postseason, and Morris already has one from the first round. The 6-foot-8 forward has been one of the most valuable Clippers throughout the postseason and losing him for even one game would be a significant blow.
3. Clippers center Montrezl Harrell appeared to get his postseason back on track after Game 4, when his scoring and energy resembled the regular-season force who was named the NBA’s top reserve rather than the player who has struggled with conditioning and matchups during the postseason. In Game 5, the Clippers were outscored by 19 points during the seven minutes Harrell played in the second half.
Starter Ivica Zubac, who is a steadier defender, played 31 minutes, seven more than his series average, including the final five. But the damage had been done from the end of the third quarter to midway through the fourth.
4. The Clippers’ strategy to limit Kawhi Leonard’s regular-season workload is being put to the test by the every-other-day format of the postseason inside the bubble. After averaging 32 minutes per game during the regular season, Leonard has played at least 38 minutes in four of the five games against Denver.
Leonard scored 13 of his 36 points in eight fourth-quarter minutes, and he would have played at least a minute more but coaches sent him to the scorer’s table midway through the quarter only to recall him to the bench after the Clippers added to their lead with a few layups. Of that decision, Rivers said he was “just trying to get him minutes at that point — we were just trying to buy him every minute that we could.”
The Clippers’ rotations at the end of the third quarter “got messed up” as Rivers tried to get his key players rest before the final push. When Leonard took a seat with 11:17 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Clippers led by seven points. Their lead was four when he came in less than four minutes later but would be trimmed to two within the next possession by Denver.
“When he went off the floor is when the game changed,” Rivers said. “Usually, you know with that unit that we've put out on the floor with Trez and Lou [Williams] and [Paul George], we keep scoring. We just didn't score in that stretch, and I thought that was a pivotal moment."
5. Last season’s Clippers were defined by their comebacks. This season’s team has been hamstrung by how often they’ve allowed them. This was their sixth loss of the season when leading by at least 15 points, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
“We had leads like this all year, and you know, teams came back on us,” Leonard said. “We just got to keep fighting. It's basketball. Go out there, have fun and play hard.”