The Nuggets didn’t just do a number on Kawhi Leonard. They did a three-hour Grateful Dead set. Followed by five encores.
“(They were) just more aggressive in their double teams, collapsing to the paint on drives,” Leonard said after Nuggets 110, Los Angeles Clippers 101 late Saturday night, squaring their Western Conference semifinal series at one win apiece.
Every shot was contested. Every dribble was poked. Every feed was prodded. Every pass was accosted. Whenever the Claw hoisted up a jumper, Jerami Grant stuck a paw in his face. Whenever Kawhi posted up, he found Grant glued to his back like a refrigerator magnet as a Denver guard, usually Gary Harris, reached in to make it a Mile High sandwich, jab-jab-jabbing at his front.
The attention was surgical, clinical and unflattering: four makes, 13 misses, zero treys, four turnovers, 13 points. And a Nuggets lifeline.
“A few easy ones didn’t fall early,” Leonard continued, “and that was it from there, pretty much. We got into a lot of iso basketball once we got ourselves in that hole.”
The Nuggets found holes everywhere. They found themselves again, a welcome visage after an admitted case of dead legs in Game 1.
Jamal Murray took the wheel, netting 27 points in his most assertive outing since that three-game fireworks display against the Jazz. Nikola Jokic dropped 3-point rainbows (26 points), elbows (18 rebounds) and cross-court, Drew Lock dimes (four assists). The underdogs got a little bit of everything — 13 points from Harris and Paul Millsap, 11 more from Michael Porter Jr., Grant’s stifling defense — from the other seven guys across the rotation.
More importantly, they found a formula for Game 3, a useful path for Monday and beyond:
When in doubt, beat the Clippers upside the head with their own tire iron. And do it from the jump.
“Once you’re down 20 points early, it’s very hard to come back in a game, especially a playoff game,” Leonard noted. “We couldn’t make shots. They did a great job.”
Denver was all hands and hustle early, a No Fly Zone in blue and gold, an organized and relentless bunch that challenged almost every Los Angeles exchange as a personal affront. Down 10-2 about three minutes and change into the contest, Kawhi figured he was going to post the smaller Murray up. Harris closed in quickly from Leonard’s left, reached across, and swatted the ball to start a run-out the other way.
With that, the tone was set. The 3 seed zoomed out to leads of 14-2, 18-6, 33-18 and, on an MPJ slam four minutes into the second period, 57-37. It was a complete 180 from the roles in Game 1, save for the disconcerting lulls whenever the Denver offense stalled enough for the favorites to chip their way back in it again.
“I thought Jerami Grant’s defense on Kawhi was spectacular. I thought the four guys behind him were giving the necessary help,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I thought Gary Harris’ defense on Paul George was terrific. But the help behind that was what we need and what we didn’t have in Game 1.”
They’ll need more. They’ll probably need to be even better. Leonard is 16-5 (.762) in Game 3s over his career. He’s 7-2 (.778) when coming off a Game 2 defeat. The last time Kawhi was held to only four field goals in a postseason tilt, Game 2 of a 2016 series against Memphis, Leonard went loco in Game 3: 32 points, seven boards, five blocks, and six treys.
“I don’t know what to expect (Monday),” said Harris, whose back-to-back fourth-quarter treys pushed a seven-point Denver lead to 13, allowing us to exhale. “I know we’ve got to focus on ourselves.
“We can’t be satisfied with one win. I don’t think we’re really worried about them. I think we’re worried about ourselves. We know that’s a great team over there.”
Kawhi has never much liked the taste of canvas, and the Nuggets gave him a face full late Saturday night. The bully’s got a swollen eye, a fat lip, and a conga line of bruises from shin to ego. He also knows he’s in a real scrap now.