Midnight came early for the Nuggets in their humbling Game 1 drubbing at the hands of the Clippers on Thursday night.
More specifically, it was a swift second-quarter strike that essentially ended the game before halftime. The Clippers closed the final 6:06 of the first half on a 23-11 run that stretched a six-point margin to an 18-point one.
Over that stretch, the Nuggets’ offense ground to a halt, their defense disconnected and Kawhi Leonard physically took over the game. If the Nuggets were to only watch one segment of Game 1 before Saturday night, it should be this one; it explained almost everything that went wrong Thursday night.
The Clippers swarmed Jamal Murray with guys like Patrick Beverly and Leonard, their physical brand of resistance making Denver’s young star work for every centimeter. Even worse, Denver’s offense got stagnant and lacked purpose. With soft screens and lazy cuts, Los Angeles’ defenders had a field day. It wasn’t a surprise when the Nuggets mustered just 20 points to the Clippers’ 38 in the second quarter.
“They get up in you, they take you out of the flow of your offense, and they make you take one-on-one or contested shots and we fell right into their trap,” said Nuggets veteran Paul Millsap.
He called for a more physical mindset before Saturday’s Game 2 and didn’t seem particularly dismayed by the lopsided final score.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone called fatigue a factor, but also got to the root of what he described as “random offense.”
“We can’t try to play one-on-one against a Paul George, a Kawhi Leonard and a Patrick Beverley,” he said. “They’re too good. We have to trust the pass. We have to trust our teammates.”
The disjointed offense meant the Clippers rarely had to face a set defense. And from there, the Clippers ran a clinic on the Nuggets, shooting nearly 70% in the quarter alone.
“Can we contain one-on-one, and can we guard the paint?” Malone pondered. “A guy gets beat, where’s our help?”
Leonard abused and exploited his chances, making the Nuggets pay every time they hesitated.
No play was more damning than when Murray and Millsap completely botched a switch and gave Leonard an uncontested dunk. Similar lapses, against a player of his caliber, will spell a quick and uncomfortable end to this series.
This is just inexcusably bad communication against the the best two-way player in the NBA. Leonard basically ended the game in the second quarter. pic.twitter.com/VN1iyxbOyS
— Mike Singer (@msinger) September 4, 2020
Outside of a strong first quarter, when Denver competed on defense and moved without the ball on offense, there wasn’t much for the Nuggets to be proud of. But after surviving a 3-1 deficit in the first-round, they bought themselves a renewed margin for error heading into the conference semifinals.
“We’re gonna flush it tonight, for sure,” Millsap said.