Pat Riley used to say that an NBA playoff series does not begin until the home team loses, which is a confusing theory in this Bubble-wrapped postseason.
But an NBA playoff series can end when enough accumulated truths pile up. Whether the Clippers finished building that wall on Monday is still unclear, but their ability to summon bricks and mortar in the fourth quarter was impressive in their 113-107 win over Denver.
They collected their bricks from the hand of Jamal Murray, who shot the Utah Jazz out of the first round even when Denver trailed that series 3-1. Going into Game 3 of this series, Murray was 15 for 36, 5 for 16 from deep.
In this game Murray was 5 for 17 and 2 for 7, thanks to the Clippers’ assortment of large wing defenders. Murray, who had put together the most prolific 3-game span in playoff history against Utah, had trouble even seeing the rim at the end, and L.A.’s defense finally turned Nikola Jokic tentative down the stretch.
Jerami Grant’s three-pointer put the Nuggets ahead, 97-90, early in the fourth. From that point until Jokic’s basket that cut the Clippers’ lead to 111-105, Denver had only one field goal, and that was a fairly miraculous out-of-bounds save by Murray that became a bucket by Grant.
Overall the Nuggets were 1 for 9 on their fourth quarter threes, and missed 15 of 22 shots overall.
The Clippers even got on the highlight reel, which, to that point, was being dominated by Denver’s outrageous Michael Porter. The second-year man, once America’s top high school hooper, rained down a dunk on Montrezl Harrell that will decorate the Internet for a while.
But when Murray drove the lane at the end, Kawhi Leonard was waiting on him from above. Replays showed that he actually blocked Murray’s shot with his middle finger.
“That’s a long middle finger, man,” said Paul George.
>> GAME STORY: Clippers get past Denver, take 2-1 lead in semifinal series <<
Overall, the Clippers held Denver to 19 points in the fourth quarter and limited the Nuggets to 10 free throw attempts. In the long run, that wasn’t surprising, but it was hard to visualize it for most of the previous three quarters, when Jokic was feasting on the foul-bedeviled Ivica Zubac and puzzled the Clippers with his playmaking, including a brilliant look-off pass to Monte Morris for one of many Denver second-quarter layups.
The Nuggets also burned the Clippers three times on simple in-bounds passes from the side. But, all along, the Clippers were getting some grinding minutes from Leonard and George, and when Patrick Beverley came into the fourth quarter with consecutive steals, you could sense Denver’s shortness of breath.
“Both ends of the floor, Paul really exerted himself and took ownership of the game,” Lou Williams said. “We just decided in the fourth quarter we weren’t going to lose this game.”
For Doc Rivers it was nearly ideal — a tough Game 3 win and a 2-1 series lead, with lots of warts and hiccups to provide humility during Tuesday’s practice.
“We had a lot of lapses, they’re hard to overcome,” Rivers said. “But overall, when we locked in, we were really good. It’s been in spurts. I look at the whole picture. I get it, but the mental lapses are frustrating. We had a lot of them and we got away with it. You can’t be great and do that every night.”
As usual, the numbers were devious. Jokic hit the Clippers with 32 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists and yet was a minus-8 on the sheet, measuring how the Nuggets did when he was on the floor. But Beverley was minus-13.
“I ignore that,” Rivers said. “You gotta be careful with plus-minus. Sometimes it’s just bad luck, you’re on the floor when the other team is making a run. With Pat, he had back to back steals, he gets big rebounds, he just makes so many plays that aren’t statted. It’s amazing.
“But can you imagine giving the other team 19 more shots and still winning? You have to be so good offensively to do that. And that’s what we were tonight.”
The Clippers were the highest-scoring team in the postseason coming into Game 3 and also had the highest shooting percentage, and they shot 54.7 here, with George draining 12 of 18 shots and scoring 32.
The series theoretically is not close to done, but it appears the Nuggets have to be at their best in more areas than the Clippers do. Normally it’s hard to win like that, even if your home is on the road.