The Denver Nuggets will not be denied. With a stunning Game 7 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver became the first team in NBA history to come back from consecutive 3-1 series deficits to advance.
Improbably, the Nuggets fielded the two best players in a Game 7 against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Nikola Jokic posted a monster triple-double, and Jamal Murray scored 40 points in Denver’s 104-89 win, securing a date with the Lakers in the Western Conference finals and spoiling the anticipated all-L.A. tilt.
In an embarrassing loss, Leonard and George combined for just 24 points on 10-for-28 shooting. They missed all 11 of their shots in the fourth quarter, finishing their final frame of the season scoreless. Title favorites after taking a commanding series lead in Game 4, the Clippers blew a double-digit first-half lead for the third straight game and again fell short of the franchise’s first-ever conference finals appearance.
The union of Leonard and George last summer vaulted the Clippers into the championship conversation, along with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the rival Lakers. Leonard’s reign as Finals MVP will come to an end 16 months after he led the Toronto Raptors to their first title. He arrived in L.A. with the hope that the Clippers could shed their reputation for misery, but instead stacked their most painful loss ever on top of it.
What felt like an inevitable L.A. showdown was theirs for the taking. Instead, pressure now mounts for the Clippers in the offseason. The core of a contender is under contract for next season — and only next season. The front office mortgaged the future to pair George with Leonard, trading Danilo Gallinari, rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, four first-round picks and two pick swaps to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Now clouded by bitter defeat, George and Leonard can both become unrestricted free agents in 2021.
“It hurts,” George told the media after a 10-point night on 16 shots that came with five turnovers against two assists. “It hurst, but you move on. Year one together, first run together. Of course we wanted to win this, but we’re very optimistic about us being together and building something going down the road.”
The blown series lead also raises questions about coach Doc Rivers’ ability to right the ship next season. Tuesday’s loss marked the sixth time a team coached by Rivers has blown a series lead with three wins.
“We didn’t meet [expectations],” Rivers told reporters after his second blown 3-1 lead in L.A., “and that’s the bottom line. I’m the coach, and I’ll take any blame for it. But we didn’t meet our expectations, clearly.”
“We did have championship expectations,” added Clippers guard Lou Williams, who scored only seven points on 11 shots. “We had the talent to do it. I don’t think we had the chemistry to do it, and it showed.”
But enough about the Clippers. The Nuggets earned this.
The two-man game between Jokic and Murray was brilliant. Jokic finished with 16 points, 22 rebounds and 13 assists, commanding Game 7 despite a 5-for-13 shooting effort. His first assist found Murray a minute into the game, and his 12th found him again for a three-pointer that gave the Nuggets a 98-80 lead with 2:24 to play — the moment reality set in that they were actually going to erase a second straight 3-1 deficit.
In between, Jokic proved time and again why he is the greatest passing center in NBA history. Drawing double teams, the 25-year-old found cutters and curlers and spot-up shooters. It was an absolute clinic.
“We are just not accepting that somebody's better than us,” said Jokic, per The Denver Post’s Mike Singer.
On the other side of their pick and roll was Murray, a 23-year-old who logged his fourth 40-point outing of the playoffs. The three prior came during Denver’s 3-1 comeback against the Utah Jazz in the first round.
Now, the Nuggets will play in their first conference finals since 2009, when Carmelo Anthony pushed Kobe Bryant’s eventual champion Lakers to six games. James and Davis pose a similar threat this time around, only this young Denver team enters with the confidence of winning six close-out games in six opportunities.
“All ya'll better start giving this team some damn respect, because we put in the work and we’ve got a resilient team,” Murray said, listing a number of the countless pundits who predicted a Nuggets loss, per HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto. “Ya'll can start changing the narrative and looking at us in a better light.”
There is no denying them now. Jokic, Murray and the Nuggets are absolutely for real.
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