Clippers blast Nuggets by 23 points in ugly Game 1 showing

There’s no mercy in the NBA playoffs. No sympathy, either.

Against a beleaguered Nuggets squad, the Clippers sent an unambiguous message in Thursday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals: Los Angeles is a different kind of beast.

Well-rested and hungry, the Clippers pounded the Nuggets, 120-97, dominating the physical aspects of their second-round opener and shredding Denver’s defense. The Nuggets will look for redemption come Saturday’s Game 2.

Despite multiple defensive coverages, Kawhi Leonard was unstoppable. His bruising shoulders created whatever space he needed as he poured in a game-high 29 points on 12-for-16 shooting.

Following his heart-stopping Game 7 game-winner against Utah, Nuggets center Nikola Jokic struggled to assert himself in the paint and managed only 15 points on 6-of-14 from the field. His star counterpart, Jamal Murray, was similarly contained, finishing with just 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting. The Clippers threw waves of defenders at Murray in what was a marked difference from what he saw against the Jazz.

“You can say whatever, it’s gonna be true,” Jokic said. “It was a bad, bad night for us.”

Aside from Leonard, Los Angeles got 19 points from Paul George and 18 from Marcus Morris. The latter drained four 3-pointers and exploited his forward matchup, no matter if it was veteran Paul Millsap or rookie Michael Porter Jr. trying to contain him.

“The obvious thing is that we just got to get a little bit more stronger, little bit more tougher, match their physicality,” said Millsap, who scored 13 points and grabbed nine rebounds but has had an unremarkable postseason thus far.

The Clippers shot 56% from the field, compared to just 42% from the Nuggets. Denver’s lackluster defense translated to slow, plodding offense, and the Nuggets could never recover as the deficit grew to as large as 29.

“I felt as they started building a lead and getting away, we resorted to zero-pass possessions, one-pass, and we settled for so many threes,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who admitted fatigue played a factor. “We put no pressure on their defense. And we weren’t making threes.”

Only Nuggets swingman Jerami Grant found any semblance of rhythm, but after a 12-point first-half, he was held scoreless as the Clippers maintained a healthy margin the entire second half.

As if they didn’t have enough firepower, the Clippers enjoyed the return of feisty point guard Patrick Beverley after he played just one game in the first round due to a strained calf. He was one of many who harassed Murray into a miserable night.

It was a taxing turnaround for the Nuggets, who came off their Game 7 high only to see a well-rested Clippers team waiting for them Thursday night.

“It goes from Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley, to now, super-size it,” Malone said before the game. “Now you have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and then Lou Williams off the bench. So, yes, they’re going to test us. This will be a hell of a challenge. This Clipper team is a team that a lot of people have picked to win the NBA championship.”

Murray averaged 31.6 points during his supernova first round against Utah. In three regular-season games against the Clippers this year, two of which Beverley played, he averaged only 13.3 points on just 37.5% percent shooting.

In the first half, the Clippers bullied Murray into 10 points on 4-of-11 from the field. The Nuggets anticipated the varying looks he saw.

Between Leonard’s physical pounding and strong 3-point shooting, the Clippers hung 38 points on the Nuggets in the second quarter to stake a 69-51 halftime lead.

After three consecutive games of stingy efforts, Denver’s defense didn’t arrive in the first half. Its ball containment was awful, which led to a huge discrepancy in points in the paint. Offense didn’t come easily, either, considering Denver was taking the ball out of their net so often.

Only Grant and Jokic found any sustained success, combining for 23 points over the first two quarters.