This Game 5 loss was a classic Clippers game as the good guys held a lead over the Nuggets for most of the game, but fell apart down the stretch to push the series to Game 6.
The miserable finale of this game was a long way off early. The Clippers looked extremely sharp defensively, with crisp rotations and active hands leading to stifled Nuggets’ possessions. On the other end, despite missing some shots, the Clippers moved the ball around well, and they jumped out to an early lead. However, every time they started to pull away a bit, the Nuggets would claw their way back. The Clippers’ bench unit struggled a bit more defensively, and despite some brilliance from Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers’ lead was just five going into the second quarter.
The bench, as it had for several games, played great for the Clippers early. They whipped the ball around the court, with repeated drive and kicks leading to open shots. Paul George spearheaded the charge, playing great basketball on both ends of the court. Lou was ice cold most of the night, but a couple floaters pushed the Clippers lead to 14, and all the momentum was going their way. The teams went back and forth a little, though the Clippers held onto a solid lead throughout. Then, near the end of the quarter, Paul Millsap and Marcus Morris Jr. got into a bit of a tussle, and Morris was assessed with a technical foul. It was seemingly unimportant at the time, but had big consequences. Nonetheless, the Clippers held a 14-point lead going into halftime, and had thoroughly outplayed the Nuggets on both ends.
Everything flipped in the 3rd quarter. While the Clippers’ defense was still sound enough, it lacked the energy and crispness of the 1st half. The rotations were a step slower, the closeouts not as fierce. And, slowly, the Nuggets began to get into a rhythm on offense. This was made worse by the fact that the Clippers couldn’t buy a basket. Their shots were open, they moved the ball around well, but they just couldn’t connect. A fair criticism would be that they were too jumper-happy at this point, but their looks were pretty excellent, so it’s tough to be too harsh. However, their lead was slowly chipped away, spurred by a suddenly ferocious Millsap. He took it at whatever defender was guarding him, bullying his way into the paint for scores and free throws, and draining a three for good measure. Marcus Morris responded with back to back threes of his own, but Millsap roared back, and the Clippers’ once 16-point lead was down to seven going into the 4th.
Things only got worse from there. The Clippers’ bench was unable to score, and, worse, ineffective at slowing the Nuggets. Montrezl Harrell made several poor decisions to attack in traffic and didn’t score, while Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic picked him apart on the other end. Soon, the Nuggets seized the lead, and all at once the energy and momentum was entirely in their favor. The starters checked back in for the Clippers, yet the damage was done. Kawhi was able to make a couple threes, and got to the line, but there was no rhythm or flow to the Clippers’ attack, and their defense failed at stringing stops together. Despite not playing all that well, they had the ball down two with under two minutes to go. Unfortunately, Lou Williams missed a wide open three, and Michael Porter Jr. drained a contested, early shot-clock triple for the Nuggets on the other end, effectively ending the game. Ultimately, the Clippers suffered a typically tragic loss, falling to the Nuggets 111-105.
The Doc-Trez Connection Strikes Again: Doc Rivers had mostly coached a good series to this point, but he fell back into a Mavs series blunder by overplaying Montrezl Harrell. Trez had a couple nice baskets in this one, but his defense and rebounding were as suspect as ever. He only played 16 minutes, but it felt like a whole lot longer. At this point, it’s questionable whether he should be getting more than 6 minutes per game. Playing Lou on a cold night wasn’t a great decision either, but Lou’s playmaking and confidence are more valuable than what Trez offers, and his defense is less noticeable compared to Trez due to position. Doc overplaying Harrell has cost the Clippers several times in the playoffs, and it struck them again in Game 5 against the Nuggets. If there was a single glaring weakness to the Clippers at this point (outside of sometimes stagnant offense), it’s Montrezl Harrell and Doc’s usage of him.
Ice Cold Lou: Lou Williams has been positively frigid from deep in the playoffs, shooting well under 30% on shots from distance. He was 0-5 from long range tonight, and his shot just isn’t there right now. He’s connected on a high percentage of his two-point shots in the playoffs, and his playmaking has been excellent, so he’s still providing value – yet the Clippers will need him to start connecting from three if they are going to win a championship. His effort on defense is appreciated, and he’s been less bad on that end than Montrezl Harrell (or Reggie Jackson), but those shots not falling cost the Clippers dearly tonight.
Dominant Kawhi: The one Clipper to emerge from tonight unscathed is Kawhi Leonard, who was brilliant with 32 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals. He was the only Clipper able to consistently score in the 2nd half, and his defense was simply superb. It’s a mark of how badly the Clippers fell apart that they lost in a game where Kawhi was clearly determined to end the series. Hopefully they support him better in Game 6.
Ruffling Pauls’ Feathers: It’s impossible to know if Marcus Morris’ chirping at Paul Millsap is what got him going in the 3rd quarter. But going by the facts of the matter, he was dead quiet before the incident, and then put in 14 points in the 3rd quarter alone, looking like a man possessed. While the Clippers blew the game down the stretch, they truly lost it in the 3rd, and Millsap is the one who turned the tide. Morris has played well in these playoffs. He was 4-10 from the field and 3-6 from deep (his outside shooting has been unsustainably hot), and his defense was mostly solid. He’s even refrained from hogging shots as much as is his want. But his ejection against the Mavs could have cost them badly if the Mavs had been slightly better, and his raising of tempers could have pushed Millsap forward tonight. Sometimes it’s better to not get opposing players riled up, because it can have a negative impact.
The Clippers still hold a 3-2 lead despite their loss in Game 5, and can close the Nuggets out in Game 6 on Sunday morning. However, the Nuggets will have plenty of confidence after this win, and all the pressure will be on the Clippers. Hopefully this group is made of sturdier stuff than the Clippers of yore, because if not, this loss to the Nuggets in Game 5 could be just the beginning of an all-too-familiar dread.