The Clippers might have arrived at the gym Saturday with some pep in their steps, fresh off a convincing Game 1 victory, Montrezl Harrell’s Sixth Man of the Year award, having just welcomed family members into their bubble.
But Doc Rivers was wary of the potential countereffects of such good fortune.
Before his team stepped on the court in Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinal series against Denver began Saturday, the veteran coach noted that the Clippers needed to keep their edge against a Nuggets team that would have its legs under them this time.
And, boy, did Denver come out swinging, beating the Clippers 110-101. With restored energy and aggression, now four days removed from their emotional Game 7 victory over Utah, the Nuggets roared to a 44-25 lead in the first quarter Saturday. They made 17 of 24 shots in the first period, and the Clippers, caught flat-footed, never recovered.
“I thought they just played more aggressive, they got into us the entire game,” Rivers said. “And offensively we just refused to move the ball and make simple plays. As beautiful as we moved the ball in Game 1, we did the exact opposite in Game 2.”
The Clippers outscored Denver the rest of the way, 76-66, and held Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic — who combined for 44 first-half points — to just nine points after halftime.
But L.A. never could get over the hump, never tasted the lead, and the Nuggets evened the best-of-seven series, 1-1.
The Clippers shot just 40.9% from the field, their lowest field-goal percentage of the playoffs so far.
After scoring 29 points or more in each of the Clippers seven postseason games so far, Kawhi Leonard was limited to just 13 on 4-of-17 shooting Saturday.
Paul George led the Clippers with 22 points, but he shot just 7 for 19.
JaMychal Green’s played with his typical vigor off the bench, collecting a postseason-career-high 11 rebounds to go with 10 points on 4 for 6 shooting.
And Ivica Zubac was the team’s second-leading scorer with 15, but he was beating himself up after the loss for letting the Nuggets’ talented center Jokic get going so well early on.
“It’s tough, he’s one of the better offensive players in this league, he’s got a lot of moves and can shoot it from outside,” Zubac said. “But I didn’t start out the game right defensively. I allowed them to get the ball easy in the post. I was not physical with him like I’m supposed to. I’ve got to do a better job getting over the pin-downs and cross-screens. Overall, I didn’t do a good job defensively tonight.”
“I’m going to watch the film and see where I can get better and I’m going to bring it next game.”
That was the theme for the Clippers postgame: ’Tis the season for adjustments, which will beget more adjustments.
“It’s playoffs,” said George, who added eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks Saturday. “It’s a game of adjustments at this point. They made the adjustments from Game 1. It’s no surprise … that they are going to make the adjustment.
“We just got to be better going into Game 3.”
The Clippers continually chipped away Saturday, and they got within seven points with 2:37 to go when Marcus Morris Sr.’s first basket — a 3-pointer — cut the lead to 101-94.
But, keeping with the evening’s theme, the Nuggets had an answer: a Gary Harris 3-pointer, one of four Saturday by the 25-year-old guard who was a 33.3% 3-pointer shooter this season.
Lou Williams (13 points) pulled the Clippers back a bit again when danced inside for a bucket to make it 104-96.
The Nuggets’ response: another Gary Harris 3-pointer, which pushed the lead back to 11 and just 1:38 on the clock.
Morris canned a tough 3-pointer to make it 107-99 just before Patrick Beverley drew consecutive technical fouls and was ejected for arguing a call with 1:04, leaving the court to regroup shortly before his teammates.
“We got ourselves in a 20-point hole early,” said Leonard, who had 10 rebounds and eight of the Clippers’ 20 assists. “We can’t do that if want to try to win these playoff games. A lot of shots didn’t fall for us, some easy ones, some good looks, but give the Nuggets credit. They came in very aggressive tonight on both ends and they played well at the end of the game.”