You’ve probably seen the meme where Spider-Man points at himself. If I could pick one picture to encapsulate where the Clippers currently stand, that’s my choice. Following a brutal game seven loss to the Denver Nuggets, the Los Angeles Clippers are in a position where they can only blame themselves.
But, first and foremost, I want to acknowledge Michael Malone and the rest of the Denver Nuggets players and coaching staff. Coming back from a 3-1 deficit twice in the same postseason is a feat accomplished by no one in NBA history. All credit goes to Denver, but we have to remember that Denver can’t achieve this if L.A. had closed them out earlier in the series.
After the Clippers defeated the Nuggets 96-85 in game four, both teams began the first quarter of game five pretty tight. In the second quarter, the Clippers started to pull away. Lou Williams made baskets inside the arc and Landry Shamet and JaMychal Green hit some key triples off the bench to provide the starters with critical help.
An and-1 from Marcus Morris Sr. saw the lead extend to 56-40, which would be the largest lead held by the Clippers. L.A. went into the second half with a twelve-point cushion, but the Nuggets made the necessary adjustments to make a run. Denver didn’t take over right away, but following crucial baskets from Paul Millsap, who arguably turned in his best game of the bubble, Denver set themselves up to make an all-or-nothing run in the fourth.
Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray needed to step up on the scoring end, and needless to say, they rose to the occasion. The one-two game between Jokic and Murray clicked at the right time, and Denver flipped the score to take a six-point lead with five minutes remaining. Kawhi Leonard hit some big threes and earned trips to the free-throw line to slow the game down, but the game fell in the hands of Michael Porter Jr., who drilled the biggest shot of the game. Denver outscored L.A. 38-25 in the final 12 minutes.
The Clippers sat on a 16-point lead but watched it slowly evaporate as Denver outplayed them on both ends of the game to force game six.
This game gave the Clippers a second chance of closing the series out, and the Clippers started the first half strong yet again. A dominant 16-2 stretch to end the second quarter was exactly what the doctor ordered, but the Clippers were too stubborn to take the medication. Despite Paul George and Leonard taking over the end of the second and setting themselves up to finish Denver off, they allowed Denver to take advantage of their poor tactics on both ends of the court.
After scoring 34 points in the first quarter, the Clippers managed just 35 points in the entire second half. Sixteen of those came in the third quarter when Denver made their huge run to trail by just two to enter the fourth. George took responsibility for 10 of those points, but he didn’t receive any help and Denver hunted the Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams mismatches to burn the Clippers on defense.
A similar theme from game five appears in this one: if you fail to keep your foot on the pedal, you’ll be passed up. You can’t offer a team like Denver the chance to see light, otherwise, they’ll climb out of the dark hole and bury you instead. Once Denver regained momentum, they grasped it with both hands and rode it to victory.
George and Leonard couldn’t carry the load themselves, whereas Jokic and Murray, though doing their jobs efficiently, were supported by Monte Morris, Gary Harris, and others who stepped up because of the momentum switch. The Clippers ended up being the team who lost by double-digits and did the one thing they couldn’t afford to do: go to game seven.
The uncertainty of a game with colossal implications is one the Clippers couldn’t afford to participate in, yet their own mishaps led them tumbling into a game where momentum didn’t favor them.
Just like the last two games, both teams kept the score tight, except Denver didn’t allow L.A. to go on a run to end the first half. The Clippers maintained the edge, but the storyline of blowing a significant lead wouldn’t materialize on post-game headlines.
However, the Clippers’ inability to score in the second half did. L.A. only managed 33 points in the second half of a win-or-go-home game. Whichever way you put it, that’s inexcusable. Fifteen of those came in the fourth quarter, where the Clippers showed zero fight; they were ready to go home. It was a relatively low-scoring quarter, but Murray and Jokic opened the floodgates just enough to drown their desiccated opponents.
Obviously, it didn’t do the Clippers any favors that their two stars shot a combined 10-38 from the floor. That’s 26% in a semifinal closeout game; there’s no justifying that type of performance. The two notably scored zero points in the fourth quarter. It’s also why L.A. couldn’t let game seven occur. You never know if the worst-case scenario for your team would happen in the biggest game of the season, but you don’t have to ponder those thoughts if you closed out responsibly.
And if Harrell is your leading scorer after 48 minutes, something went drastically wrong. Denver didn’t completely suffocate L.A. on defense either, because L.A. had open looks. But, you saw George clanking an open corner three off the side of the backboard, which made up one of his nine missed triples from the game. Again, you need to avoid game seven if you can prevent it.
In-game decisions made by Doc Rivers played a massive role in L.A’s downfall as well. Giving Harrell numerous minutes when Ivica Zubac and Green were much better players/matchups definitely cost L.A. points. Harrell’s inability to be a defender at any decent level saw Jokic and company torch Harrell. This stat certainly supports the eye test:
Montrezl Harrell and Nikola Jokic went head-to-head for 35 minutes over the final three games of this series. The Los Angeles Clippers were outscored by 47 points in those minutes.— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) September 16, 2020
Patrick Beverley fouling out early in game six played a large part, too, as L.A. lost his versatility on both ends and needed to play Williams more often. Beverley quietly turned in arguably the best performance from a Clipper in game seven, but it’s going to be swept under the rug now due to the loss.
Landry Shamet quietly disappeared and couldn’t help offensively either. Shamet’s best asset couldn’t be weaponized efficiently against Denver, as he shot 4-18 (22%) from deep in the series. He played limited minutes in game seven due to injury, but it’s hard to imagine him making a positive impact anyway.
Mike Malone, to put simply, out-coached his counterpart. When Harrell and Williams shared the floor, Denver attacked L.A. with pick-and-rolls, resulting in open looks. Because Lou Williams struggled often and Beverley dealt with foul trouble, Reggie Jackson saw minutes too, which certainly didn’t help the defense any. If Leonard and George couldn’t score, Rivers didn’t have a reliable third option, yet he kept insisting that Harrell and Williams would solve those issues. It might’ve worked in the regular season, but the bench duo was unsurprisingly exposed when it mattered most.
The Clippers are now 0-8 all-time when they’re about to clinch a conference finals berth, fittingly ranking them first in that category, per Elias Sports. Just like their blown 3-1 lead in 2015, the blame falls on the entire Los Angeles Clippers organization. With the expectations coming into the season, the lasting effects of this loss could be incalculable.
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