ORLANDO, Fla. — Mike Malone demanded a response from his team.
He knew their Game 1 effort against the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals was a sinister mix of fatigue from an emotional Game 7 grind against the Utah Jazz in their first-round series and the Clippers sensing doubt in the opposition and pouncing.
So with another day between games to stew on what went wrong, to digest all the chatter about his team being out of its league, the Nuggets’ coach had all the motivation tools needed to stoke the competitive fire of his team.
Don’t take the first punch. Deliver it. And keep swinging.
It worked spectacularly early as the Nuggets built an early 23-point lead behind the 1-2 punch of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray in a wire-to-wire 110-101 Game 2 victory Saturday. That Nuggets team that ran out of gas after the first quarter Thursday night, morphed back into the energized bunch that battled from 3-1 down against the Jazz to win that series.
The change in demeanor, the increase in physicality, is what Malone expected from his crew.
“I don’t think it’s hard at all,” Malone said. “I mean, this is playoff basketball. If you don’t have a physical mindset you’re going to be going home early. I thought we had a physical mindset in that Utah series coming back from a 3-1 deficit and tonight we were a noticeably different team than we were in Game 1. “
Those same guts and mettle they displayed in that comeback against the Jazz was require to survive the second half Saturday night. The Clippers closed within single digits multiple times in the fourth quarter, but each time the Nuggets got an answer from defensive ace Gary Harris, who nailed three huge 3-pointers to help secure the win.
Harris was playing in just his fourth game since the season restarted here in the Orlando bubble. He was rehabbing a hip injury that and isn’t yet in his normal game shape. But he’s still sharp enough to have made the clutch steal on Donovan Mitchell in the closing seconds of that Game 7 win over Utah.
Harris and Murray nailed 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions in the final minutes to help hold the Clippers off down the stretch.
“He gave us a big boost on offense and since Game 6 [of the Utah series] he’s been giving us a big boost on defense,” Murray said. “That’s what he does and that’s what we expect of him. And he’s had a great transition from not playing to coming back and starting and being a big part of what we do.”
Jerami Grant led a swarming and relentless defensive effort on Kawhi Leonard as the Nuggets held the reigning Finals MVP to his worst game of this postseason (13 points on 4-for-17 shooting) and his lowest-scoring playoff game since 2016. Leonard’s streak of playoff games scoring at least 15 points was halted at 47.
Harris did a similar job on Paul George, who led the Clippers with 22 points (7-19 FGs, 4-10 3Ps). Harris’s 13 points (including a 4-for-7 shooting effort from beyond the 3-point line) proved just as critical.
“Our defensive, our activity and the fact that we were willing to help each other [improved],” Malone said. “I thought Jerami Grant’s defense on Kawhi was spectacular. But the four guys behind him were giving the necessary help. I thought Gary Harris’ defense on Paul George was terrific. But the help behind that was what we needed, what we didn’t have in Game 1.”
That initial punch from Jokic and Murray was also missing from Game 1. After exhausting themselves in that wild Game 7 against Utah, they were spent by the end of the first quarter in Game 1 against the Clippers. They made up for it in the opening minutes of Game 2, taking turns attacking and setting the tone.
They owned the floor before halftime — when the Nuggets led led 72-56 — combining for 44 points (24 from Jokic; 20 from Murray). They combined for a total of 27 in that Game 1 wipeout.
“We were tired,” Murray said. “We came out sloppy, we came out exhausted, we didn’t make shots and it showed.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers noticed the difference from the start in Game 2. Jokic knocked down three wide-open 3-pointers early, Murray was attacking and getting to his spots and his team was trying to climb out of that hole all night.
“Jokic had like 30 seconds to shoot those first three 3s,” Rivers said. “He’s a good player to begin with. But when we gift him nine points, he’s just going to get more confident. I thought Murray was dominant and I thought Jokic was just as dominant in the first quarter. Honestly, I thought they just played more aggressive. They got into us the entire game.”
They did exactly what Malone asked them to do. They responded the way he expected a team that’s playing in the conference semifinals for a second straight season to respond when smacked in the mouth the way the Nuggets were in Game 1.
And now things really get interesting. Because the Clippers get a day to digest what went wrong, what they can do better and figure out an appropriate response.
Their path to the conference finals and beyond won’t come easy. It won’t come without a fight from a Nuggets team that is convinced it belongs.
“Our group believes in themselves,” Malone said. “We’ve shown that we’re a very resilient group that can execute and find ways to win in close games down the stretch. It’s great to be able to tie this series up and have that life and belief going into the next game.”
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