Clippers’ defense steps up late to take Game 3 from Nuggets

After the Clippers lost Saturday night, their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal against Denver tied at one game apiece, they stuck to their usual routine. They kept physical activity to a minimum and watched some video.

“We just watched what we didn’t do,” said their coach, Doc Rivers. “A lot of it was self-inflicted.”

The next film session could feel like déjà vu.

The Clippers were beat back on defense multiple times Tuesday. They allowed Denver star Nikola Jokic to walk into open three-point looks. Boxing out was a problem. Denver put the Clippers in several holes but the Clippers, at times, were just as happy to grab the shovel, too.

Yet when it came time to stop playing around, the second-seeded Clippers finally proved clutch in a 113-107 victory in Game 3 to grab control of the series with a 2-1 lead.

Paul George was the sharpest Clipper throughout the night, scoring 32 points and making five three-pointers, but Kawhi Leonard produced its most indelible moment when he blocked – using only his middle finger – Denver point guard Jamal Murray’s dunk attempt at the rim with 1:47 remaining in a six-point game.

It was part of a quarter the Nuggets would like to forget, after making just one of their last nine three-pointers. The Clippers ended a 12-6 run to win, keyed by the defense that had appeared absent for much of the previous three quarters.

Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic tries to get past Clippers’ Ivica Zubac during the second half on Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.  (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)


Leonard finished with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six assists.

Denver’s Jokic scored 32 points, with 12 rebounds and eight assists and Murray added 14 points.

Though the Clippers made 56% of their first-half shots, and Leonard often avoided the double-teams that stymied him in Game 2 by quickly locating open teammates for passes, they trailed by two at halftime because of defensive problems that started within the game’s first three minutes, when starting center Ivica Zubac was whistled for two fouls.

The Clippers then turned to JaMychal Green off the bench to defend Jokic, but he earned two fouls within the next four minutes. That left Montrezl Harrell, the NBA’s new sixth-man award winner, to anchor the defense – a strategy that has often backfired throughout the playoffs. Soon, Nuggets center Mason Plumlee was rising to catch a lob over Harrell’s head for a dunk.

But there were deeper issues at play.

Asked before tipoff whether he or his players had discussed playing with greater urgency in the 48 hours since their Game 2 defeat, Rivers said it was obvious that “if you’re this deep in the playoffs, you shouldn’t have to have that conversation.”

Yet with six minutes remaining before halftime, after Leonard traveled — one of his team’s seven first-half turnovers – the Clippers were far too relaxed getting back on defense. A quick inbound pass by Jokic found Gary Harris, who beat all five Clippers downcourt for a dunk.

JaMychal Green turned the ball over on the next Clippers possession. Paul George had another right after. Denver guard Monte Morris responded by driving to his left and rising for a layup past Leonard when the defensive help Leonard expected to come never did. The Clippers trailed by 10, and their sideline appeared lifeless.

It wasn’t. They closed the first half on a 12-2 run, keyed by a defense anchored by Zubac, patrolled by Leonard and even received a pair of steals from Lou Williams to finally resemble the version that had snuffed out Denver’s hopes in Game 1.

Such effort ebbed and flowed, however. In the final seconds of the third quarter, Jerami Grant beat the Clippers back on defense again for a layup and an 88-84 lead.

Each team had chances to secure the victory late. Denver took a 97-90 lead, then allowed eight answered points. Allowed to stay in the game after picking up his fifth foul, Zubac caught a pass from Leonard and finished with an emphatic dunk for a 101-all tie with 4:51 remaining. Less than a minute later, he’d fouled out.

Story continues

Denver’s Harris air-balled a three-pointer on the next possession – only to have Murray streak in to save the rebound and find Grant for a layup after none of the Clippers boxed him out. George slammed the ball. Rivers threw his hands in the air in exasperation.

After it was over there was frustration that they had contributed to what was nearly their own demise. But it was followed by celebration, and a series lead that looked doubtful throughout the night.

Three observations:

Guard Lou Williams had missed 14 consecutive three-pointers – a drought that covered more than four games – before making a shot from the corner in the third quarter.Forward JaMychal Green hurt his leg early in the fourth quarter but, in a positive sign for the rest of the Clippers’ series, was available to return to the game.After making five of their first nine three-pointers, the Clippers made only six of their last 22.

Greif reported from Los Angeles.

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