Alexander: Can Clippers beat a team that just won’t go away?

The first time you blow a big lead when you have a chance to clinch a playoff series … OK, it’s an aberration.

The second time? Ah, these things happen.

The third time? I think it’s fair to say you’re in trouble.

So this is what the Clippers face Tuesday night, in a Game 7 they didn’t expect but maybe should have. They will face a Denver Nuggets team that has been through this drill often enough that it seems impervious to nerves, or anxiety, or even worry. Denver won three straight in the last round to eliminate Utah. In 2019, they advanced to two Game 7’s, beating San Antonio in the first round and losing to Portland in the second.

They’re a young team, in an earlier stage of development. But they may have more playoff experience as a unit than the group the Clippers brought together with an NBA championship in mind.

“We don’t care. We’re just going to go there and have fun,” said the Nuggets’ versatile 7-foot All-Star, Nikola Jokic, after Denver wiped out an 18-point second-half deficit in just under nine minutes and won going away Sunday, 111-98.

“Coach (Michael Malone) said before in the meeting, just don’t forget to have fun. And then the third and fourth quarter, we were having fun together and everyone – you see everybody laughing. Everybody was feeling good because we were playing good. We were playing amazing. So when we play like that, confidence is really high.”

Especially when they’ve done it before. They seem poised to do to the Clippers what they did to the Jazz in the last round, and even more so. In Friday’s Game 5 Los Angeles blew a 16-point second-half lead.

And go back to the last round, and the 21-point lead the Clippers spit up against Dallas. And suddenly it becomes clear that we were way too confident about that Hallway Series that we’ve been hyping up ever since that news conference in July, 2019, when Paul George and Kawhi Leonard sat on an elementary school stage in South L.A. while Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer talked about bringing “the Larry O’B” to L.A.

Yes, and today Lakers fans are smiling and nodding. Their team took care of business in Game 5. If they feel compelled to respond to this development with snark … nah, Laker fans wouldn’t do that, would they?

(Pause for a humility check: The last time the Lakers and Clippers had a chance to meet in a playoff series, somebody blew a 3-1 series lead to spoil it. It was the Lakers, losing to Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns in 2006 at the height of Kobe Bryant’s powers.)

The issue right now is that the Clippers find themselves faced with a supremely confident opponent for whom no deficit is too big, no situation too dire.

And let’s not forget that Denver was the third seed in the West, and that they were only one game behind the Clippers for the No. 2 spot when the novel coronavirus shut everything down in March.

“We started off training camp back in September (of 2019) in Colorado Springs talking about winning a championship,” Malone said. “And we still have those same goals. We’ve never lost sight of that. Four months during the hiatus, coming back into the bubble, trying to get healthy … we’ve always felt that we were good enough. No one else does. But we don’t care about that. We don’t listen to the noise.

“We’ve always had this internal belief in ourselves as a collective group that we’re good enough to win a championship. And we find it funny that the narrative is like, ‘Oh, the Nuggets are a cute team. Oh, what a good story.’ We were second in the West last year. We were one possession away from going to the Western Conference finals. Most of this year we’re the No. 2 seed in the West … So I think it comes down to just a tremendous belief and confidence in who we are, what we’re about and what we’re trying to accomplish.”

So the Clippers are up against a team that not only is resilient, determined and skilled – witness those one-legged step-back three-pointers Jokic drained Sunday – but has a chip on its shoulder from listening to all of those folks, nationally as well as locally, predicting an L.A. vs. L.A. Western Conference final.

“All the media counts us out everywhere, all the time,” Jamal Murray said. “So it’s nice to see everybody eat their words.”

(Yeah, I know. Guilty as charged. But hold the mustard and relish until we see what happens in Game 7.)

Whatever motivational magic Doc Rivers has left, he may want to bring it hard.

“It’s frustrating,” he said Sunday afternoon. “But listen, when you decide to become a coach, it’s not going to be roses every day. So we clearly have the right formula as far as how we’re playing, and then we lose it.

” … I caught it early, though, even before we lost the lead. I turned to Ty (Lue) and said we lost our pace. We’re walking the ball up the floor. We were getting stops early in the third quarter and we just lost our pace, and that’s just not us. We can’t play the way we tried to play.”

So what will his message to his players be Tuesday night?

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll let you know.”

It had better be good.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter