Kawhi Leonard and ‘locked in’ Clippers dominate weary Nuggets in Game 1 win

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives on Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives on Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray during the second quarter of the Clippers’ win in Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals on Thursday.
(Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images)

There was a lot for the Clippers to like after their first-round series against Dallas.

Playoff Kawhi Leonard played as advertised. Ivica Zubac looked like a seasoned pro, not a 23-year-old in his second postseason series. They survived without Patrick Beverley, one of their most essential players. When pushed, they fought back.

But it’s a coach’s job to be critical, and Doc Rivers had plenty to consider there too. Such as: Why had it taken a 2-2 series tie to wake the Clippers’ intensity?


“You’re in the playoffs,” Rivers said, “and I didn’t think we joined it until Game 4.”

It took just 12 minutes for them to officially join Game 1 of the NBA’s Western Conference semifinals, a 120-97 rout of Denver.

Following a tied first quarter in which both teams shot 59%, a swarming Clippers defense held Denver to 36 points over the next 24 minutes as Los Angeles’ lead grew to 29.

The Clippers produced a 24-9 run in the second quarter to lead by 18 at halftime and a 17-2 run in the third quarter.

Patrick Beverley set the tone with early offense and brought energy in first game back from injury in the Clippers’ Game 1 win over the Denver Nuggets.

Sept. 3, 2020

There was plenty for Rivers to like — not the least of which was a focus that was as “locked in,” as forward Paul George said, as he has seen from this roster.

“We looked great tonight,” said George, who scored 19 points. “Everybody helped, everyone had great energy. We were vocal. And we just wanted it. We wanted to play for one another. It was just fun basketball.”


Before tipoff, Rivers said that the challenge posed by superb Dallas guard Luka Doncic hadn’t necessarily given the Clippers a leg up in preparing for Denver guard Jamal Murray, who’d averaged more than 31 points in the first round while twice scoring 50 points against Utah.

“It just gets tougher each round,” Rivers said.

And yet it looked anything but.

Leonard scored 29 points in his 32 minutes, making 12 of his 16 shots in another clinical display of marksmanship. He is shooting 64.5% on shots inside the three-point arc this postseason and is the first player since Michael Jordan in 1988 with at least 29 points in his first seven games of a postseason, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Highlights from the Clippers’ 120-97 win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 1.

Marcus Morris Sr. continued his torrid postseason shooting, as well, with 18 points. And with Zubac holding his friend and Nuggets counterpart, Nikola Jokic, to just 15 points, and Beverley and Leonard corralling Murray in waves — he finished with just 12 points in 33 minutes — the Clippers cruised.

Denver forward Jerami Grant caused the Clippers fits in the first quarter, making all three of his three-pointers and even sneaking behind Leonard for a back-door layup. But after scoring those 11 points, Grant added just one more the rest of the game, and his offensive outage was no outlier. Jokic and Murray, spectacular against Utah, shot a combined 11 of 29 from the field and two for 10 from three-point range.

Having wrapped an emotionally draining, physically exhausting seven-game series against Utah only 48 hours earlier, Denver coach Mike Malone knew his team was “gassed” entering Thursday.


However, the team had Wednesday off and hours before tipoff against the Clippers, Malone left a shoot-around “with a good vibe that our guys were excited,” he said before tipoff. “That we have energy.”

They’ll assuredly have more energy for Game 2. The Clippers’ advantage was so decisive that the Nuggets didn’t even play their starters in the fourth quarter.

The Clippers, 12-1 this season when playing at full strength, shot 57% overall to the Nuggets’ 42%.

As the new coach of the Brooklyn Nets, Steve Nash inherits a roster that includes Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.

Sept. 3, 2020

“The first series that was kind of like a tuneup for us,” Morris said. “Our point guard went down the first game and they tied it at two. I think we’re hitting our stride right now. It’s fun. Guys know where they need to be on the court and it’s going to be tough to beat us.”

All week, nail-biting finishes had come to define these neutral-site playoffs at Disney World’s Orlando, Fla., campus. The three games preceding Thursday’s Game 1 were decided in the final seconds.


But the Clippers showed no interest in adding to such suspense.

“It’s just a different intensity to the playoffs,” Rivers said. “If you don’t execute, it’s going to hurt you and part of that is intensity and focus. And you have to have that on every single play. I don’t think we understood that early on. I think we do now.”

Three observations

  • Morris is now shooting 56% during the postseason after making seven of his 10 shots Thursday.
  • The Clippers outscored Denver 66-40 in the paint.
  • Playing for the first time in five games because of a left calf injury, Beverley played 12 minutes.

Greif reported from Los Angeles.