Kawhi Leonard was backing up to take the ball out of bounds after a Denver free throw Sunday night, his Clippers down eight with 71 seconds to play and a flicker of hope for a comeback remaining.
But before he could pass to teammate Lou Williams, he spotted commotion at midcourt, bounced the ball to official Ken Mauer and raised both palms for the universal sign of confusion: Why was his coach being ejected?
Doc Rivers wondered the same thing, incensed by two fouls in the final 2:41 — an offensive foul on Montrezl Harrell upheld on replay review, and a sixth foul on Patrick Beverley — he opined it resulted from rules misinterpretations by official Nick Buchert, whom he pointed at one final time before leaving the court.
“‘We can’t make up the rules,’” Rivers said he told Buchert before being tossed. “I got thrown out for saying that. No swear words, not yelling. The bottom line is, I shouldn’t get a tech. That’s No. 1. That’s on me. No. 2, I didn’t think I deserved it, quite honestly.”
The coach said his team’s eventual 114-104 defeat against the Nuggets, however, was more than deserved.
“We waited too late to play,” Rivers said.
The Clippers (27-13) were in trouble long before their rally in the fourth quarter, which trimmed Denver’s 20-point lead in the second half to six, stalled in the final minutes.
Forward Paul George might not have traveled to Colorado for the one-game trip, missing a second consecutive game because of a strained left hamstring, but the issues that have dogged the Clippers for much of this month were again present against the Nuggets.
The Clippers entered Sunday with the league’s eighth-worst turnover rate. Their 14 turnovers became 25 Nuggets points.
Defensive lapses allowed Denver, which had made 31% of its three-pointers in its last 10 games, one of the worst rates in the NBA, to make seven of its 14 shots from deep in the first half and 11 of 25 overall.
“I think we’re good but we’ve just got to talk more, communication has to be better,” said center Ivica Zubac, who scored six points with nine rebounds and kept Denver out of the paint during his nearly 18 minutes. “I think that’s where we mess up a lot.”
Leonard scored a game-high 30 points, Williams scored 26 in his fifth start this season and Harrell added 25 points and eight rebounds off the bench.
Led by an unexpected starting lineup of Leonard, Williams, Zubac, Beverley and forward Patrick Patterson — which had played together all of six minutes this season — Los Angeles created a five-point lead in less than six minutes against Denver, which had lost in the same building the previous night.
All that progress quickly unraveled during a second quarter in which Denver reserves scored 15 of their team’s 37 points, led by nine by Michael Porter Jr. Nikola Jokic led Denver (27-12) with 20 points.
“We gave up 37 points and that can’t happen to us,” Zubac said. “We’re better than that defensively. We just got to take pride in stopping people.”
Just as they had Friday, during a victory against Golden State, the Clippers attempted to make up for a choppy first three quarters with a fourth filled with stops and baskets.
By flipping the switch, the Clippers put themselves within striking distance of a comeback. But it was also the latest example of the up-and-down play they’ve been unable to shake since allowing a season-high 140 points to Memphis on Jan. 4.
Concerns about their defense, steadiness and turnovers were not allayed in two victories against New York and Golden State that followed, and those factors were again crucial during their loss to Denver.
“It is frustrating because we know what we’re capable of and when you get a fourth quarter like that ... how come we couldn’t have a second quarter like that?” guard Rodney McGruder said. “Because the second quarter is the quarter that really blew the game away.”