The Clippers blew their first opportunity to advance to the conference finals Friday, but they’ll get two more. Here are three numbers that stand out from LA’s Game 5 loss.
36: Kawhi Leonard’s scoring total
It wasn’t all bad for the Clippers despite the loss. Leonard was in a mild offensive funk earlier in this series, but he firmly broke out of that. He was living in the lane early, even throwing down two hammer dunks and generally getting whatever looks he wanted both in the midrange and at the basket. When the Nuggets brought extra pressure at him, he was making the right reads to find open teammates, even if they didn’t always convert.
About the only glitch Leonard had offensively was when he missed two close shots at the rim with the Clippers up 88-86 in the fourth quarter. Jerami Grant was defending him, but Leonard had two chances to extend the lead; instead Nikola Jokic hit a three on the other end, and the Nuggets had the advantage the rest of the way.
Still, Leonard was the only consistent offense the Clippers had down the stretch. He even created two wide-open threes for Paul George and Lou Williams that didn’t go down. His 36 points, nine rebounds, and four assists gave the Clippers a chance to win.
16: Clippers bench points
The Clippers led the league with 50.3 bench points per game during the regular season, powered by 18 points apiece from Williams and Montrezl Harrell. Despite leading the league in points per game during the playoffs, the Clippers are only getting 36.5 points per game from their bench in the postseason. Even that number would have been enough in Game 5, when the LA bench went cold.
LA’s bench scored 16 points on 7-of-20 shooting, brought down in particular by Williams going 2-of-10 from the field and missing all five of his threes. Most of Williams’ looks, particularly those inside the arc, were quality shots. But he is now 10-of-45 on 3-pointers in the postseason, and at this point, cannot be relied upon as an offensive option in close games. The Nuggets were deliberately sending two at the ball-handler and letting Williams take threes in the fourth quarter. If he isn’t hitting spot ups, Landry Shamet makes more sense in those situations.
The starters provided enough offense for the Clippers to win Friday, but the bench — which, admittedly, is a little shorter now that Doc Rivers has tightened up rotation — didn’t get the job done.
+16: Nikola Jokic’s plus-minus against Montrezl Harrell
In the first round, the Clippers discovered that matching up Harrell with Boban Marjanovic was a losing proposition. Marjanovic was simply too big for Harrell to contend with. There is a similar dynamic at play in the second round, another big Serbian center who is having his way with Harrell. Nikola Jokic is not Boban’s size — no one is — but he is tall enough and too skilled for Harrell to defend effectively.
The two shared the court for just over eight minutes in Game 5. During that time, the Nuggets outscored the Clippers by 16 points. For context, they only won the game by five.
Every worst fear the Clippers could have about the Jokic/Harrell matchup was on display down the stretch against Denver. When Jokic was in the post surveying the rest of the floor, Harrell was too small to deter any passes given that he’s at least five inches shorter than Jokic. He also couldn’t provide a meaningful contest on Jokic jumpers. When Jokic and Jamal Murray ran a pick-and-pop, Harrell would still drop despite literally being on the floor to defend Jokic on the perimeter.
Defensively, Harrell doesn’t provide any spacing, so Jokic could camp in the lane. He stayed home on every Harrell post move and just used his brute size to contest the Clippers sixth man in the paint, which proved effective more often than not.
Ivica Zubac didn’t have a great game, and it was understandable that Rivers didn’t want to go back to him, even though Zubac has the length to make life a little difficult for Jokic. But the Clippers have two small-ball five center options in JaMychal Green and Marcus Morris Sr. Even if neither of them could defend Jokic — which was already happening — both would force Jokic to leave the paint on defense and thus make him work on that end. With Harrell in the game, Jokic was comfortable on both ends of the floor as he and Murray spearheaded the Nuggets comeback.