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Column: Confident Clippers dominate Nuggets, who vow to fight back

Clippers forward Paul George attempts a layup against the Nuggets during Game 1 of their playoff series on Thursday.
Clippers forward Paul George attempts a layup against the defense of Nuggets center Mason Plumlee in Game 1 of their playoff series on Thursday night.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

It can’t be this easy. Or can it?

The Clippers presented a compelling argument for believing their path through the Western conference semifinals could be as smooth as the silky mid-range jumpers Kawhi Leonard made on Thursday while he scored a game-high 29 points in their series-opening 120-97 romp over the Denver Nuggets.

The Clippers had the benefit of a few days’ rest before they faced the Nuggets, who had gotten less than 48 hours to recover and replenish after a physically and emotionally draining Game 7 victory over Utah in the first round. No question, the Clippers got a scheduling break there.

Yet, the Nuggets played them evenly and at a fast pace in the first quarter on Thursday. That ended when the Clippers pressured them into mistakes and bad shots and took command at both ends of the floor. “The first quarter was really good, especially offensively. We got away from that as the game went along,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We can’t try to play one-on-one against a Paul George, a Kawhi Leonard and a Patrick Beverley. They’re too good.”

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The score was tied at 36-36 in the second quarter, but the Clippers sprinted away with a 22-7 run. They went on to gain enough separation to sit Leonard, Morris, Beverley and Ivica Zubac in the fourth quarter, giving them more rest that could prove crucial with a game scheduled every other night.

The Nuggets couldn’t delete the game from their collective memories quickly enough. “We’re going to flush it tonight, for sure,” forward Paul Millsap said. “The reality is we had one day to prepare. Excuse or not, no excuse. It is what it is. It’s the cards that we were dealt. We go seven games in our [first-round] series, that’s how we got to do it.”

What’s important to note is that the Clippers did more on Thursday than merely take advantage of a tired team. Made whole by Beverley’s return from a calf muscle injury to resume his role as their defensive leader, the Clippers extended their postseason winning streak to three and in every aspect were the championship-caliber team they’d always said they could be. It was an impressive sight.

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“I think we played all right,” Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. said jokingly in an on-court interview afterward. “I think it works.”

George described it as “just fun basketball playing with everybody.” He added, “It’s great to have everybody together. We’ve been saying it all year. It’s good for us to continue to build this chemistry.”

They shot 57% from the field, outrebounded Denver 45-40, and held big-game scorers Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray to 15 points and 12 points, respectively, with a swarming, ceaseless defensive effort. Beverley was the leader, but he had plenty of company. “It’s obvious they pressured us and took us out of our offense,” Millsap said. “They were just more physical. I think the obvious thing is we’ve got to get a little bit more stronger, a little bit more tougher. Match their physicality.

“It’s a good first game just to see where we’re at and what type of team we’re playing, and just regroup and go on to Game 2.”

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

Jokic, to his credit, resisted using fatigue as an excuse. “I was not tired at all,” he said in a postgame video conference. “Standing as a person, Nikola Jokic, I was not tired.” The Clippers, he said, earned the victory.

“They were aggressive,” said Jokic, who averaged 26.3 points per game against Utah in the first round. “We didn’t go to our spots. Our spacing was not good. We didn’t make shots. We were kind of rushing our shots. You can say whatever, it’s going to be true. It was a bad night for us. They affect us, but we can change, we can be better.”

They’ll have to improve considerably to stay even with the Clippers, who are not only whole but wholly confident.

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“We know for us to win we have to have better games from Jamal and Nikola, our two best players,” Malone said, “and it also starts on the defensive end. Can we contain one-on-one and can we guard the paint? A guy gets beat — where’s our help? Where’s the next line of defense. A lot of things we can do better and I hope we will, come Saturday night.”

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.

Hoping and doing aren’t the same thing. “Somehow we’ve got to figure it out,” Millsap said. “We’ve got to get our legs back under us. We’ve got to get guys rested and we’ve got to come out with better energy next game.”

Even that might not be enough. The Clippers were tested by Dallas early in the first round and met the challenge, clamping down to win in six games. When they were pushed, they pushed back. During this playoff journey they’ve not only grown healthy, they’ve grown up. When the going gets tough, they get tougher.

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“I think it’s just a different intensity to the playoffs because you can play the same team,” coach Doc Rivers said. “They’re overly prepared for you and so the little things stand out. One mistake will cost you a basket. One mistake can cause a turnover. You run it right, you’ll get a basket or a shot, and if you don’t execute it’s going to hurt you, and part of that is intensity and focus.

“You have to have that on every single play, and I don’t think we understood that early on. I think we do now.”

Elliott reported from Los Angeles.


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