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Clippers secure No. 2 seed in the West with win over Nuggets

Clippers' guard Paul George controls the ball while defended by Denver Nuggets forward Torrey Craig.
Clippers guard Paul George controls the ball while defended by Denver Nuggets forward Torrey Craig during the first half Wednesday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
(Kim Klement / Associated Press)

The Clippers clinched the second-best record in the Western Conference for the first time in the franchise’s history Wednesday, a moment so memorable that coach Doc Rivers omitted it entirely from his postgame locker-room address following a 124-111 win against Denver.

For a group that has carried championship ambitions all season, there was no celebration.

Only shrugged shoulders.

“We don’t really care,” Rivers said. “We want to win it all. We’ve got to improve as a team, we know that, we have work to do. But we’re going to the playoffs with that mind-set. That’s the only thing that matters right now.”

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Beginning next week, the Clippers will face seventh-seeded Dallas in a matchup featuring four of the best active offensive players in the Clippers’ Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. The latter duo has fueled what has become the most efficient offense in NBA history and yet the Clippers are 3-0 this season against the Mavericks, including a 15-point victory last week as part of the NBA restart at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports complex.

“Luka is going to be a handful,” said guard Lou Williams, who scored 23 points in 24 minutes off the bench.

The NBA playoffs will take place this year in the Orlando, Fla., bubble without the presence of one of the league’s most devoted fans, James Goldstein.

The Clippers (48-23) needed to win one of its last two seeding games to clinch the second seed and pulled away comfortably after Denver, which finishes with the third seed, pulled its starters for the last quarter in order to rest up for its first-round series against Utah.

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The victory was anything but preordained, however, after a listless first half in which the Clippers scored a restart-low 50 points and trailed by eight points.

It took a 22-7 third-quarter run powered by an offensive awakening by George to turn the game toward the Clippers, who made 10 of their 21 three-point attempts after halftime to outscore the Nuggets by 21 points over the final two quarters.

George scored a game-high 27 points, his sixth consecutive game with at least 20 points. Leonard scored 26 points, his 11th consecutive game with at least 20.

Once the game was over, however, the Clippers’ focus returned to the place it has been fixed on all season — the postseason.

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“Seeding don’t really mean anything in this bubble,” George said. “There’s no home-court advantage. Again, for us it’s just about the small things and building habits, gaining steam going into these playoffs.”

By signing Leonard as a free agent and making a franchise-altering trade with Oklahoma City for George, the Clippers announced their championship intentions in no uncertain terms 13 months ago. Every roster move made since then, from signing Reggie Jackson and trading for Marcus Morris, has underscored that commitment.

Considering their offseason acquisitions, the Clippers entered the season saddled with expectations of reaching the West’s second seed, at least. Making it a reality went anything but by plan, however. A spate of staggered injuries allowed the complete roster to play together in only 11 games. With one seeding game left Friday, they still are not at full strength. Backup center Montrezl Harrell is currently undergoing the league’s quarantine protocols.

And yet with their superstars healthy, the Clippers are in the position they hoped for entering the postseason.

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“We know what’s at stake,” George said. “We know what we here for. We’re a team that’s here and have the opportunity to win it. We’re a team that’s focusing on getting deep into the playoffs. That’s the only thing we talk about.”

And only at that point will the Clippers celebrate.

Here are three observations:

  1. Coach Doc Rivers is hopeful guards Patrick Beverley (calf strain) and Landry Shamet (sprained left foot) will play when the postseason begins but couldn’t yet say for sure whether they would be available.
  2. Since making 14 three-pointers in his first two seeding games on 63% shooting, George had made just six three-pointers in his last three games entering Wednesday, then made one of his first five three-point tries against the Nuggets. But he rebounded to make three of his four attempts after halftime.
  3. The Clippers recorded 11 steals Wednesday, their most steals in their last 13 games.

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