Down 97-90, the Clippers went on an 8-0 run in 90 seconds and the Nuggets seemingly never recovered. LA attacked Nikola Jokic in the pick-and-roll successfully and tired him out for the other end, where he only scored four points in the fourth quarter. The Clippers sent pressure at Jokic and Jamal Murray, forcing other Nuggets to beat them. They couldn’t, and LA is now up 2-1 in the series.
Paul George led the way with 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting. He was outstanding throughout in arguably his most important performance in a Clippers uniform.
The late rally covered for the fact that the Clippers once again didn’t have the appropriate defensive intensity to start the game, but enough shots were falling that it didn’t show up on the scoreline in the first quarter. George had the touch on his jumper, hitting 4-of-7 shots for 10 points in his first stint. The team adjusted to Denver’s defense on Kawhi Leonard by getting Leonard moving more and moving the ball in general instead of relying on Leonard to force shots.
One salient example came early in the game when Leonard was doubled just outside the paint. Instead of attempting to power through the two defenders, he kicked the ball out to JaMychal Green for a 3-pointer. Leonard’s individual offense also looked much smoother. He had 14 points in the first half — exceeding his Game 2 total — on 6-of-8 shooting and wasn’t sped up at all.
The defense wasn’t up to par to start partly because of foul trouble. Ivica Zubac picked up two fouls in the same possession guarding Nikola Jokic, clearly taking Doc Rivers’ directive to be more physical with Jokic to start, forcing Zubac to be subbed out less than three minutes into the game for JaMychal Green.
The defense really fell apart in the second quarter. The Clippers seemed confused on their rotations and were obliterated on the defensive glass by Mason Plumlee and Michael Porter Jr. Up one after the first, Rivers used his first time out when Jamal Murray hit a 3-pointer in semi-transition. He got Zubac and Leonard back into the game shortly afterwards, but that still didn’t fix the problem. On one possession, after a dead ball, Gary Harris got an uncontested dunk in transition, and no Clipper even realized what was happening.
After Rivers’ second timeout of the period with the team down 10, the Clippers finally turned up their energy. Zubac was excellent defending Jokic on post ups, even as Jokic mercilessly hunted a third foul call. The Clippers selectively brought in doubles to force turnovers — Jokic had four in the second quarter, leading to nine LA fast-break points. Leonard’s six straight points sparked a 12-2 run to close the period, bringing the Clippers to within two at the half.
George gave LA a short-lived lead in the third quarter with an and-one early in the period. But the Clippers once again got lackadaisical in transition defense, and Jokic started to exploit their drop coverages. Two defenders would converge on Gary Harris near the paint, allowing Jokic free rein on 3-pointers.
George was superb on offense, however, keeping the team alive despite numerous defensive miscues. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell chipped in nine points in the period. When the Clippers committed to running their offense, using ball movement to allow George and Leonard attack a compromised defense, there was little that Denver could do to stop them. But there just wasn’t that same commitment to stopping the Nuggets.
Rivers recognized the seriousness of the game with his lineup choice to start the fourth, excising Reggie Jackson in favor of Patrick Beverley. Beverley forced two steals that led to lay-ups on the other end. That presaged a strong defensive effort to close the game; Denver only scored 19 points in the fourth quarter compared to 29 for the Clippers.
The team likely won’t be satisfied with their overall effort, but they played hard enough down to stretch to earn the win and regain the lead in this series.