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Clippers put it all together: Five takeaways from Game 1 win over Nuggets

Clippers center Montrezl Harrell drives to the basket against Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. on Thursday.
Clippers center Montrezl Harrell drives to the basket against Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. during Game 1 on Thursday night.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

It wouldn’t typically be notable that Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard was far from effusive in a postgame interview. For as long as Leonard has been in the NBA, he has been a man whose words are more monotone than megaphone.

But his attitude was instructive following Thursday’s 120-97 Clippers win against Denver in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series. The Nuggets were blown out in a fashion that was even worse than an already lopsided score suggested. During the second and third quarters, the Nuggets made 11 of their 41 shots while the Clippers made 22 of their 39. At its largest, the Clippers’ lead was 29 points.

Was this first game a preview of what is to come? Leonard will be the last to celebrate early.

“That team went through a seven-game series,” Leonard said, in a tone that suggested caution. “And I’m sure they will come back more prepared for Game 2.”

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In other words, beware the Nuggets, who have already rallied from down 3-1 to beat Utah in the first round.

Here are five takeaways from Game 1:

1. Over and over during their first-round series against Dallas, the Clippers put themselves in difficult positions by keeping 6-foot-7 Montrezl Harrell on the court to guard 7-4 Dallas center Boban Marjanovic rather than staggering 7-foot starter Ivica Zubac’s minutes to overlap with some of Marjanovic’s time.

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

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Guard Patrick Beverley defended Harrell’s usage after Game 1, noting that “if we’re going to be honest, any matchup with Bobi for anybody is tough,” but the numbers suggested that Zubac at least made it tougher. Marjanovic made one of his five shots in that matchup, and seven of 10 against Harrell.

Against the Nuggets, coach Doc Rivers adjusted and took steps to keep a similar mismatch from happening again. Rivers limited how often Harrell’s minutes off the bench overlapped with Nikola Jokic, Denver’s incredibly creative starting center. The majority of Jokic’s minutes were covered by Zubac, a player who not only is coming off a terrific first round but knows Jokic’s game like few others because of their shared history in Belgrade, Serbia.

Of Jokic’s first 12 minutes, Zubac was on the floor for nine. When Jokic played the final seven minutes of the first half, he faced Zubac for five of them. They also overlapped for the first nine minutes of the third quarter. Jokic finished with 15 points but made one of his six shots taken outside of the paint.

2. For as tight as the Clippers’ defensive clamps were during the second and third quarters, Denver shot 59% in the opening quarter and their ball movement often forced mistakes from of the Clippers’ rotations.

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Yet after Denver assisted on eight of its first 11 baskets, their final 24 baskets generated 12 assists. Its 57% assist rate was 10 percentage points lower than in Tuesday’s Game 7 victory against Utah.

3. After missing his previous five games because of a calf injury that “humbled me,” Beverley returned to the Clippers’ starting lineup against Denver. But anyone blindly expecting Beverley to remain a fixture of it should be proceed cautiously. As noted by colleague Dan Woike, Beverley has played more than 70 games just twice in his eight NBA seasons and missed 21 games during the regular season, including the last five because of the calf. When he returned for Game 1 of the first round, he reinjured it.

Beverley acknowledged that “anyone can’t take health for granted.”

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“Our training staff has done an unbelievable job of getting me right, getting me stronger, getting me back as quickly as possible, and I’m just fortunate to come out of this game with no nagging injuries and happy we got a win in the first game,” he said.

Beverley was set to play under an unspecified minutes limit in Game 1 but likely didn’t bump up against it after needing just 12 minutes before the victory was imminent. Still, that was more than enough for his teammates to feel as though the team’s “voice” had returned.

“He’s the general, man,” Marcus Morris Sr. said.

4. Another positive development for the Clippers: The discussion about Morris following the game centered solely on his play.

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After struggling to find his rhythm on three-pointers since joining the Clippers via midseason trade from New York, Morris is shooting 45% from behind the arc since the postseason began and 56% overall after making seven of his 10 shots in Game 1. As such, he’s become an indispensable part of the offense. The attention that defenses must pay to Morris opens up the court for Kawhi Leonard and the rest of his team’s offensive options.

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.

The value of his shooting and perimeter defense as the postseason continues only underscores why the Clippers can’t afford him to be sidelined again, as he was in Game 6 against Dallas after fouling Luka Doncic above the neck, leading to his ejection. In docking Morris $35,000 for that foul, the NBA noted his history of altercations had factored into the amount of the fine. Officials assuredly know his history and could be quick with a technical foul during this series if tempers are raised. But there was no need for that Thursday. Morris stayed on the court and the Clippers were better for it, outscoring Denver by a team-best 24 points during his 26 minutes of play.

“He was terrific, and that will get lost in his offense, but man, I tell you, defensively in his passing and spacing and being in the right place, he was a pro’s pro tonight,” Rivers said. “Just very efficient. He plays such an intelligent basketball game. It was great to see.”

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5. Beverley’s return cut into the minutes of Landry Shamet and Reggie Jackson, the guards whose roles increased during his absence. The question was which player it would affect more.

On Thursday, at least, the answer was Jackson, whose 13 minutes were eight fewer than Shamet.

Shamet was the first player off the bench when Beverley checked out after a four-minute stint to begin the game and finished with four points and two rebounds. Jackson didn’t attempt a shot and registered zero rebounds, assists or steals in his 13 minutes.

Greif reported from Los Angeles.


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