The Clippers put their foot down again in the second half Wednesday for a choppy, wire-to-wire 96-85 victory over the Denver Nuggets that puts L.A. within a victory of the first Western Conference Finals appearance in franchise history.
Not that the Clippers were celebrating. No way.
“That’s not our goal, so I don’t even think anyone cares, to be honest,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “So it was zero reaction; we haven’t done anything yet.”
Well, they’ve done something, if not the thing.
These Kawhi Leonard-led Clippers already recorded the best regular-season finish in team history by claiming the second seed in the Western Conference.
And with Leonard again doing the heavy lifting — the Moreno Valley native recorded 30 points, 11 rebounds, a career high-tying nine assists, four steals and two blocks — the Clippers closed in on their next franchise milestone by grinding out a victory to go up 3-1 in their conference semifinal series in the bubble at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
It’s not over yet, though, cautioned Leonard, a two-time NBA Finals MVP who is 16-8 in closeout games in his illustrious personal postseason history.
“It’s always good if you could if you can make it to the next round,” Leonard said, noting that the Nuggets rallied from a 3-1 deficit in their opening-round series against Utah. “We got a lot of work to do still. That Denver team does not quit. They’ve got a good group over there, a good coach, so we’re still fighting.”
On Wednesday, foul trouble and lukewarm shooting didn’t thwart Leonard and the defensively locked-in Clippers, who built an early lead for once this series, almost relinquished it entirely, and then reestablished dominance.
The Clippers shot only 41.8% (33 for 79), but they made up for it with their defense — which, as of Tuesday’s announcement, includes a pair of 2019-20 NBA All-Defensive second-teamers in Leonard and Patrick Beverley (2 points and 7 rebounds).
Altogether, the Clippers limited Denver to 39.7% shooting (27 for 68). That included 26 points by Nikola Jokic and 18 by Jamal Murray — who averaged 31.6 points per game in the first round.
“This was a great example of the old saying, ‘Your defense will save you and your offense at times will let you down,’” Rivers said, who added that he was uplifted by his team’s competitiveness. “Instead of worrying about the shots we weren’t making, we kept playing defense, that allowed us to win the game.”
With Paul George hindered by foul trouble that limited him to 27 minutes, in which he scored 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting, Leonard carried the Clippers with his sixth game of at least 30 points in 10 postseason games in the bubble, second most by a Clipper in a postseason.
L.A. started Game 4 by picking up where they left off in Game 3, when they willed their way to victory with a dominant fourth quarter.
Denver had opened the first three games of the series with first quarters of 31, 44 and 32 points, but Rivers wanted his squad to not to let the Nuggets get going early.
“I mean, listen, I just think it’s us,” Rivers said pregame when asked about the Nuggets’ first-quarter prowess this season. “Give Denver credit, they’re an excellent offensive team, but we have proven through the game, when we play right defensively, make the right rotations, we’re pretty good, so just gotta do that from the start.”
And the Clippers obliged, stifling Denver from the start, forcing turnovers, beating Denver on the boards, and holding the Nuggets to three makes in their first 14 shot attempts. The Clippers led 26-12 after the first quarter — the second-fewest points scored by an opponent in a period of a postseason game in the Clippers history.
Denver warmed up in the second quarter, lifted by Michael Porter Jr.’s three 3-pointers and 13 points in the quarter. He finished with 15 points off the bench, none coming in the second half, when he took only two shots.
The Clippers went into halftime with a 48-40 lead, but Denver came out after intermission as though it was emerging for one of its fast first quarters, aggression that led to four quick Clippers fouls as the Nuggets chopped what was once an 18-point lead down to 52-50.
But the Clippers showed more of the decisiveness of which Lou Williams spoke after Monday’s win, when he surmised, matter-of-factly: “We just decided we didn’t want to lose this game.”
The Clippers used a 13-3 spurt to reestablish their advantage — a sequence to which Leonard contributed five points, two assists, two rebounds and a steal.
Williams — effective defensively, as well, this series — gave the Clippers six of his 12 points in the third period, including a two-handed dunk off a dish from Leonard on a break, and a fancy flip skyward after he was fouled.
And the Clippers took a 73-63 lead into the fourth quarter, never to let it go, focused, it seemed, on the long goal, the real goal, and what it will take to reach it.
“I know that we just want to keep getting better,” Leonard said. “And that is the focus on each and every day, just being a better unit.”