Denver Nuggets 110-101 Los Angeles Clippers: Three takeaways

by Alex Labidou Staff Writer

The Nuggets were thoroughly outclassed by the Clippers in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. They returned the favor in Game 2. 
Denver grabbed the lead from the tipoff and never let go, leading by as many as 23 points, en route to a 110-101 win over Los Angeles. 
Nikola Jokić powered the Nuggets with 26 points to go along with 18 boards (one shy of his playoff career-high) and three blocks on 58.8 percent shooting. Paul George was the Clippers’ top scorer with 22 points on 19 shots in a losing effort. 
With the series tied up, attention now turns to Monday’s pivotal Game 3 “home’ contest for the Nuggets (7 p.m. MT, TNT). 

Here are the takeaways: 
Nuggets leading duo outshine Kawhi Leonard and Paul George
Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray combined for 54 points on 20-of-38 shooting compared to George and Leonard’s 35 on 30.5 percent. Stars tend to shine their brightest during the NBA postseason and Denver’s lead duo rose to the occasion Saturday, helping the team even up the series. 
Jokić had one of the best first halves of his young career, posting a stat line in the opening 24 minutes that would more than suffice for the game on a regular season night, going for 24 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks on 69 percent shooting. 

"That first quarter Nikola was phenomenal," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. "We did not make their defense work at all [in Game 1], I felt tonight there was a marked difference in our approach, our energy, our movement and we made ourselves a lot harder to guard." 
Similar to Jokić, Murray had a strong first half that helped the Nuggets set the tone early, pouring in 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting. Though the guard was held to a largely quiet third quarter, he had a few big plays in the fourth quarter that helped ice the contest. It was his three-pointers at the 2:12 mark in the fourth quarter that helped push the lead back to 104-94. 

"Jamal, you could tell was much more rested tonight, compared to Game 1. [He was] ready to go and had a big night for us." Malone said. 

Murray finished with 27 points, six assists and two steals. 

All-around effort
As easy it would be to point to Murray and Jokić’s as the reason why the Nuggets were able to secure a Game 2 win, the team would haven’t gotten past Los Angeles without the efforts of several other players. 
Gary Harris has been invaluable on the defensive end since his return in Game 6 of the first round. On Saturday, he was equally as crucial on offense – especially in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets shooting guard poured in nine of his final tally of 13 in the last 12 minutes of the contest. He was also part of the effort to slow down Kawhi Leonard along with Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig. The Clippers star forward finished the night with 13 points on 4- of-17 shooting. 

"He gave us a big boost on offense, and since Game 6, he's been given us a big boost on defense," Jamal Murray said of Harris' performance. "That's what he does and that's what we expect of him. He's having a great transition from not playing to come back and starting and being a big part of what we do." 

Paul Millsap, Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris also deserve a lot of credit. For Millsap, it was a resurgent performance. The veteran power forward has struggled with inconsistency throughout the postseason. Millsap provided some much-needed inside-out punch for the Nuggets, putting up 13 points and six boards and hitting a couple timely three-pointers. 
Porter Jr. was effective on both ends for Michael Malone’s team, adding 11 points, seven boards and two steals in 17 minutes. It has to be encouraging for the coaching staff to see their highly-touted rookie impacting games even with limited action. Morris was a sparkplug for the Nuggets in the first half and finished with 10 points and two assists. 
Defense vastly improves
In Thursday’s defeat, the Clippers hit 10 of 24 threes and scored 66 points in the paint. The Nuggets raised their physicality on Saturday and as a result, was able to contain their opponents in both areas – holding the Clippers to just 28.1 percent from downtown and 48 points in the paint. 
The Nuggets really keyed in on being bullies in the paint and wouldn’t relent on protecting the rim. It didn’t matter if it meant sending their opponent to the line more. In Game 1, the Clippers went to the 17 times. In Game 2, the team went 29 times. The message was clear.  

"I mean, this is playing basketball. If you don't have a physical mindset, you're gonna be going home early," Malone said. 

Even Jokić, not known for his rim protection, had two blocks early on to set the defensive tone for the Nuggets. The Nuggets forced 17 turnovers from the Clippers and generated 14 points off of those points. It also helped with their fast break points, adding 15 transition points. 

"I thought Jeremy Grant's defense on Kawhi was spectacular, but the four guys behind it were giving the necessary help. I thought Gary Harris, his defense on Paul George was terrific, but the help behind it was what we need and what we didn't have that in Game 1."
The Clippers would end the night shooting 40.9 percent overall and 28.1 percent from downtown. Malone, a defensive coach by trade, has to be impressed with the overall turnaround by his team. 


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