ORLANDO, Fla. -- One game, one more win, is all that separates the LA Clippers and franchise history.
A journey of generations in the making will be realized with just one more win over the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals.
Making a trip to the Western Conference finals for the first time is a milestone worthy of attention. Now if someone could just convince Clippers coach Doc Rivers and his stars that it’s something to celebrate.
They wanted no part of any premature celebration after delivering a defensive masterpiece with a 96-85 throttling of the Denver Nuggets Wednesday night.
A commanding 3-1 lead didn’t inspire any sense of entitlement from the Clippers. Rivers wouldn’t allow it anyways.
“Um, nothing,” Rivers said of the reaction in the locker room. “Like, that’s not our goal. I don’t even think no one cares, to be honest. So it was a zero reaction is what I would say. We haven’t done anything yet.”
Rivers is right on both counts.
This Clippers team set a high bar for this season that doesn’t just include a spot making a conference finals appearance. They entered the season with legitimate championship aspirations, courtesy of the offseason acquisition of reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and his superstar plus-one Paul George.
And they can’t take the Nuggets lightly, not after seeing them battle back from a 3-1 deficit to win their first-round series over Utah with a dramatic Game 7 finish a week ago.
So technically speaking, Rivers is correct in warding off any sense of security in his locker room.
He has an ideal surrogate in Leonard, whose ability to remain unimpressed with anything other than winning the ultimate prize is unrivaled around this NBA campus.
It’s not that Leonard is immune to the subconscious good vibrations that tend to accompany playing this deep into a postseason. In fact, he knows those feelings better than anyone else in the Clippers’ traveling party. He's played until the final day of the season three times in his career, in back-to-back seasons (2013 and 2014) with the San Antonio Spurs and again last season with the Raptors.
So he knows how it feels on both sides of the championship divide. He knows that a team can’t skip any steps on the path to a Larry O’Brien Trophy. And he knows these Clippers, as deep and talented as any group still competing here, have plenty of unfinished business to tend to, Friday and beyond.
“It’s always good if you can make it to the next round,” Leonard said.”But we’ve got a lot of work to do still, the Denver team does not quit. They’re a good group over there, a good coach. We’re still fighting.”
With Rivers and Leonard on the case, peeking ahead to that potential all-Los Angeles conference finals against the Lakers, who are up 2-1 on Houston, really is not an option.
If they are the work-in-progress Rivers and his stars believe themselves to be, they can’t afford to overlook the Nuggets for a moment, not if they are going to be fully prepared for the challenges ahead.
There is still work to be done, things that need to be fine-tuned now, before facing the challenge of the Lakers or even the Rockets, depending on how that series finishes.
“We’re all still learning each other,” Leonard said. “This is a different team, especially with me and PG. And even the guys that’s been here, it’s a different style of play, different voices that you’re hearing. So we’re still trying to come together. I don’t know where we are right now. We just want to keep getting better, and that's the focus on each and every play and just be a better unit.”
Their performance Wednesday night showed all of the things Leonard spoke of. They got off to a great start and led by as many as 18 points before halftime, only to see the Nuggets rally and tie the score early in the third quarter.
The Clippers are still turning it on and off in a way only the deepest and most talented teams can. That might work in the first round or even the conference semifinals.
But it won’t be that simple in the conference finals, where a team every bit your equal awaits.
“I think our continuity is growing,” George said. “This team is getting more and more comfortable together. I think the challenge is allowing us to come together. And we’ve been accepting these challenges. We’re having fun with it and we’re growing at the same time.”
Just in time to make a little history for the franchise.
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