The Clippers’ aggression ebbed and flowed, but they had enough in the tip of Kawhi Leonard’s finger to thwart the Nuggets when it mattered most Monday, stifling Denver late to win 113-107 and take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series in the bubble at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
The Clippers picked up their defense in the final period, holding Denver scored only six points in the final five minutes.
With Denver down six points and fewer than two minutes remaining, Jamal Murray tried to give Denver life with a dunk over Kawhi Leonard. But the Klaw, as he’s known, stopped the attempt short using just the middle finger of his left hand.
“That’s an extra long middle finger, kept growing or something,” said the Clippers’ Paul George, whose defensive effort was on par Monday with his team-high 32 points. “That’s Kawhi man, big-time player.”
Leonard’s stop was symbolic of the way the Clippers closed out the game.
“In that fourth quarter, we just decided we didn’t want to lose this game,” said the Clippers’ Lou Williams, who was plus-20 in 27 minutes and finished with two steals and 10 points, including 5 that proved especially timely in the fourth quarter.
“Didn’t want to have that feeling especially after having that type of game we had the last game — and I thought Paul was the head of the snake.”
Paul George shot 12 for 18 and connected on 5 of 7 attempts from deep. Leonard added 23 points 14 rebounds, six assists and two blocks.
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For Denver, Nikola Jokic put on a show, connecting on length-of-the-court touchdown passes for easy buckets or bombing himself from deep. He finished with 32 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists — but he had to battle Ivica Zubac to do it, the Clippers were glad to say.
Zubac fouled out after 22 minutes and one shot attempt (a big and-one dunk that gave the Clippers a 102-101 lead with 4:51 to play).
“(Jokic is) one of a kind at that position,” George said. “I thought Zu did a great job. We told him, ‘He’s a great player. What you have to do, though, just make it tough for him. If he makes shots, he makes shots — but it can’t be easy. He’s got to be worn down. He’s got to be tired. And going to that next game, he’s got to remember how tough it was.’
“And I thought Zu did that.”
Beside, George and Patrick Beverley reasoned, it was hard to fault Zubac for all six fouls.
Said Beverley: “Jokic … presents the same thing (Luka) Doncic presents, a lot of flailing. Puts a lot of pressure on the referees to make the right call. I think Zu did a hell of a job. Six fouls did, what he needed to do.”
Jokic’s co-star Monday: Michael Porter Jr., who had a highlight-heavy 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Murray, who logged a pair of 50-point games in the Nuggets’ first-round series against Utah, finished with just 14 points on 5-for-17 shooting.
The Clippers weren’t perfect, they readily admitted.
Rivers marveled at the fact that they’d won despite giving the Nuggets 19 more shot attempts. Also front of mind: The six points the Clippers conceded on out-of-bounds plays.
“We had our lapses, there’s no doubt about that,” Rivers said. “But overall when we locked in, we were really good.”
The game began with an offensively clinic by both teams. The Clippers shot 61.9% and assisted on 10 of 13 baskets; the Nuggets were 56.5% from the field and also assisted on 10 of 13 makes, inspiring this following prediction from Rivers: “First team that decides to play D is gonna win this game.”
The Nuggets went first, stifling the flat-footed Clippers for the majority of the second quarter as they built 55-43 lead with 3:57 to play before halftime. But then the Clippers reengaged — and played some D — and pulled within two, 59-57, at the break.
When the fourth quarter began, the Clippers trailed just 88-84, despite the fact that, in so many ways, it appeared the Nuggets were having their way. Denver was outscoring L.A. in the paint, 48-30, out-assisting them, 28-20. The Nuggets’ had just seven turnovers to the Clippers’ 14 turnovers — which had led to 15 Nuggets points.
But the Clippers — shooting 58.2% after those first three periods, and 54.7 for the game — still were in it.
A job done is a job well done, Beverley surmised.
“We held a team to 107 points, one of the best offenses in the league, so I would say that was good defense,” said Beverley, who was limited to 20 minutes after his left calf strain, but who was active in his time on the court, with seven points, four rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block.
“Overall, we did what we needed to do. We got key stops when we needed to get key stops, and we got key rebounds when we needed to get key rebounds. Give them a lot of credit. Coming from a seven-game series to the type of play, they come out here, energetic, you have to give them a lot of credit, a lot of credit.”
But give the Clippers some too.