The LA Clippers are beginning to look like the best version of themselves. The Denver Nuggets looked like themselves until their bodies remembered they’d just finished a marathon. Game 1 wasn’t a close contest.
It’s only one game, so it’s tough to say definitively whether this was a win for the rested over the in-rhythm. But whatever the reason, it ended with another ‘r’: a rout.
The Clippers played their best basketball of the bubble, flattening the Nuggets in game 1, 120-97, and revealing a long glimpse at their fully realized selves.
The Nuggets, tipping off less than 48 hours after a taxing Game 7 — aren’t all Game 7s? — had their legs for about 12 minutes. For the first quarter, they were locked in, matching the Clippers step for step and shot for shot. The Clippers, despite a justifiably cautious approach while feeling out their novel opponent, also looked crisp to start. The teams put up matching 13-for-22 lines on field goals, posting highlights and playing to a pacey 31-31 first-quarter tie.
And then it was basically over. Keyed symbolically by a resounding block by Montrezl Harrell on Michael Porter Jr. and animated by the return of Patrick Beverley, the Clippers blitzed the Nuggets for a 15-4 run and a lead they would never relent.
Denver’s offense cratered with their reserves spelling quarterback Nikola Jokic. Their early 59% conversion rate sank to an unsightly 25%. Seemingly with each turnover came a transition bucket and another burst of enthusiasm from the Clippers.
Denver’s defense was unable to take up the slack. Leonard ticked out baskets like a metronome, finishing with 29 points on a sparkling 12-for-16 shooting performance. George played his secondary part with aplomb, tallying 19 points and four assists. His seven attempts at the free throw line resulted from his early downhill focus.
With a paucity of sizable and quality wing defenders, the Nuggets opted for quantity, swarming Leonard and George with extra bodies. The Clippers’ stars countered with expert ballhandling and systematic passing, cranking the offense into blurring motion. The good guys flexed their depth, leveraging the weakside gaps for shots and slicing drives.
It was in this role that Marcus Morris Sr starred, bringing into vivid clarity the front office’s (sometimes) obscured vision. Morris scored 18, splashing from his favored left corner when the defense was late and rumbling in closer when it wasn’t. He converted four of his five deep tries and finished with Leonard and George above the plus-20 mark.
Little went well for Denver after the first quarter. Jerami Grant made three three-pointers in the first frame and none after. Jokic, who is still a wonder, became increasingly floorbound as his legs succumbed to the minutes. He led the Nuggets with a meager 15 points and managed just three rebounds. Jamal Murray, so incendiary against the Jazz, fizzled. He scored 12 points, converting only a quarter of his threes and a third of his shots overall.
The Clippers got the best of the Nuggets in game 1, but game 2 should prove to be more educational, so far as directing where the remainder of this series goes. For now, the Clippers can put nearly this whole performance on the positive side of the ledger. With Beverley back, the team is whole once again. On Saturday, we might confirm just how good they really are.
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Best of the rest: Harrell looked like himself for the first time since his return, torturing Mason Plumlee and battering his way inside for 15 points. . . Lou Williams recorded a workmanlike 10 points and four assists. . . Paul Millsap (13) and Monte Morris (12) joined Jokic, Murray, and Grant with double-figure scoring. . . Each of the 26 active Clippers and Nuggets recorded at least four minutes.
Silver linings: What can Denver use to buoy their hopes for the next one? First, they shot only 25% from the arc, and many of the misses came on decent looks. They were a middling team in three-point efficiency in the regular season, but a blistering 42% against Utah to match the Jazz in leading all teams in the first round. Second, they pulled down 12 offensive rebounds against the Clippers’ squishy middle. With a couple more days of recovery, they may increase what may be a critical advantage.
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