Whicker: Nuggets make history, Clippers flunk chemistry

Fourteen months after it was declared, the Basketball Battle of L.A. is over.

The Lakers won without firing a shot. It was easier to watch the Clippers miss theirs.

Sure, it was conceivable that the Clippers wouldn’t win the NBA title, since they still haven’t been to the Western Conference Finals in 50 years of occasionally trying.

What nobody suspected is that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers’ prize signings of July 2019, would be spectators at their own demise.

The Clippers’ house of assumptions disappeared into a Florida sinkhole Tuesday. They were even more fragile in their 104-89 Game 7 loss to the remarkable Denver Nuggets than they were in Games 5 and 6, when they were blown out by a total of 47 points in the two second halves. They lost the third and fourth quarters by 17 this time.

They played without a theme, failed to finish maybe a dozen 2-footers, and accepted their fate with few bangs and no whimpers.

You can only conclude that they lost to a better team. If you are suffering major fan remorse over the fact that the Clippers won’t play the Lakers in the Western final,  think how the Lakers must feel.

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) scores against the Denver Nuggets during the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

“We had great shots all night,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I still didn’t think we trusted each other. Denver went through stretches like that, too. But they just kept playing. You could see us trusting less and less.

“On nights like that you hope you can lean on your defense. Even though numbers say we’re a good defensive team, we just never realized that from our group.”

The Clippers looked like a team that failed to plan, which means they essentially planned to fail.

They never established a thing offensively. The Nuggets roped-a-doped Leonard and made sure they didn’t foul him. Of all the statistical wreckage, the ugliest for L.A. was the total of free throw attempts by their best players. George had one, Leonard none.

That’s far worse than combining to miss 28 of 38 field goal attempts, which they also did. Leonard had averaged 7.8 FTAs in the previous 12 playoff games.

The Clippers were down by 13 in the fourth quarter, still with time, when Leonard found Nikola Jokic, and his four fouls, guarding him. Instead of taking him to the paint, Leonard passed off to Marcus Morris, whose first-quarter touch had long deserted him.

George was even worse. After JaMychal Green’s dunk attempt ricocheted into the backcourt, George fetched it and then threw it away. It took the Clippers seven-and-a-half minutes to get their first field goal in the fourth quarter, and that was with Jokic on the bench, nursing fouls. It barely mattered: Jokic had already written a triple-double across the sky: 16 points, 22 rebounds, 13 assists.

“We just got cold,” George said. “We tried to make them make turnovers and they did a good job of playing right through that.”

Defensively the Clippers continued to double-team Jokic, and Murray raged for 25 first-half points on 11-for-17 shooting. The best passers, and indeed the best players, are too good to double-team. They’ve seen that gambit all their lives. They certainly have no trouble with the obligatory doubles the Clippers were throwing out there, with inactive hands and weak rotations. The Clippers never even made Denver consider a Plan B.

Now the Nuggets prep for the Lakers, with Game 1 on Friday. They are the first NBA team to wipe out two 3-1 deficits in the same playoff season. This was also the fourth seven-game series in their past two seasons. Jokic has earned international praise for his extraordinary passing, but he has teammates who share his wavelength. They move confidently to the sweetest spots.

The Clippers, with plenty of garbage time to hone their spin, said that was the ultimate difference.

“We need to get smarter,” Leonard said. “We need to build some chemistry. When you’ve played together for a while, they know the exact places where everybody is, and it makes it easier.”

The problem with that, of course, is that the Lakers were asked to become a supergroup just as quickly. They came together as smoothly as Blind Faith.

Rivers pointed out that Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley all missed significant time in the bubble itself, and somehow that bled into their conditioning.

“We had guys asking to come out in the middle of Game 7,” Rivers said, “and I had to do it.”

But it wasn’t the Game 7 that was promised, two Julys ago.

“This was not a championship-or-bust year,” George said before walking away. His words, at least, were shooting 50%.