The Denver Nuggets, skilled at the art of getting their opponents out of their comfort zone, are suddenly revived with a renewed sense of confidence heading into Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal series Monday against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Showing more energy, and operating with a different game plan, the Nuggets overwhelmed the Clippers in Game 2 on Saturday, earning a 110-101 victory at AdventHealth Arena near Orlando to even the series at a game each. Game 3 will also be at AdventHealth Arena.
Jamal Murray’s 27 points and Nikola Jokic’s 26 were only part of the story, as Murray rebounded from a 12-point effort in Game 1. The Nuggets adjusted their defense to collapse inside and block the passing lanes back outside. The change resulted in the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard delivering his worst performance of the playoffs so far.
It created a different energy, much like what happened in the Nuggets’ first-round series, when they trailed 3-1 to the Utah Jazz and cranked up their effort to win the last three games and advance.
Leonard’s run of scoring at least 29 points in each game of the playoffs ended Saturday in Game 2 when he tallied just 13 points on 4-of-17 shooting. He had four turnovers, his most in eight playoff games with the Clippers.
“We were a noticeably different team tonight than we were in Game 1,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters. “Our defense, our activity, and the fact that we were willing to help each other.”
The Nuggets were so good at getting a double-team on Leonard, that he was held to fewer than 20 points in a playoff game for just the third time in his last 32 playoff games. He didn’t make any of his six second-half field-goal attempts as the Clippers were desperate to rally.
The adjustment was so effective that despite cruising to a 120-97 victory in the series opener, Los Angeles is the team needing an adjustment now.
The effectiveness of Nuggets’ changes was evident from the outset. They outscored the Clippers 44-25 in the opening quarter, creating six turnovers while committing just one. Each team took 24 shots in the initial 12 minutes, but Los Angeles was harassed into missing 13 of them.
The Denver defense led to easier offense as the Nuggets went 17 of 24 (70.8 percent) from the field in the opening quarter and had 11 fast-break points to five from the Clippers.
“Give the Nuggets credit,” Leonard told reporters. “They came in very aggressive tonight on both ends.”
The Clippers’ Paul George, who said the first quarter “was really the game,” scored 22 points on 7-of-19 shooting, including 4 of 10 from 3-point range. For the game, the Clippers shot 40.9 percent from the field to 45.1 from the Nuggets.
Yet the first round also showed that the Clippers know all about getting things back on their terms. Twice they had a one-game lead on the Dallas Mavericks only to see their opponent even the series. Saturday could have been another wake-up call.
“We will be better for Game 3,” George told reporters. “There’s no pep talk for it. It’s the playoffs. We got to be ready. We’ve got to come out a lot stronger and we’ll be up for the fight.”
Denver may have some instability in the lineup as well. Jokic was listed as questionable for Game 3 with a sprained right wrist, the Nuggets announced Sunday night.