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Column: It was a sloppy show, but Clippers were able to clean up in time against Nuggets

Clippers' Kawhi Leonard tries to get past Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray.
Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard tries to get past Denver Nuggets’ Jamal Murray during the first half on Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The Clippers’ margin of victory over the Denver Nuggets on Monday was measured by the length of a finger on Kawhi Leonard’s outstretched left hand as he blocked a shot by Denver’s Jamal Murray with under two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

“That’s an extra-long middle finger that kept growing or something,” teammate Paul George said.

The Clippers’ margin of victory really was that small, and that extraordinary play summed up how they got there: with a late fourth-quarter return to the snarly, junkyard-dog defense they had played most of the season. Except for occasional moments of focus during the second quarter on Monday their defensive play was simply junk, a parade of turnovers, mistimed coverage, carelessness, and a jaw-dropping, windmilling, posterizing dunk by Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. over Montrezl Harrell, the NBA’s sixth-man-of-the-year award winner, in the third quarter.

Not until the Clippers were seven points behind the Nuggets and found themselves a little over eight minutes away from falling behind in their second-round playoff series did they do what winning teams do. They forgot the mistakes of the recent past and lived in the present, holding Denver to 10 points in the last 8 minutes 11 seconds and grinding out a 113-107 win that gave them a 2-1 series lead.

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“They turned up the pressure,” Denver coach Michael Malone said, lamenting his team’s one-for-nine shooting from three-point range in the fourth quarter and overall seven-for-22 shooting performance in the final 12 minutes.

The Clippers were sloppy and they caused themselves more anxiety than was necessary, but they rediscovered their identity and their defensive intensity when it mattered most. That’s a significant takeaway from this game for a team that’s still, at this late stage, learning its capabilities. They can clamp down when they need to, can look as if they’re letting the game slip away only to lock in on the task at hand and hold a good Nuggets team to 19 points in the fourth quarter, outscoring Denver by 10.

“The game came down to one of the two teams was going to play some defense, and for 3½ quarters both teams were basically scoring,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “In the last six minutes, it was our defense.

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“I thought that play by Kawhi was amazing; I didn’t know it was one finger. I thought he just blocked it. It was impressive. I didn’t even know where he came from. It was a heck of a play.”

No question, the Clippers’ defensive errors and 17 turnovers bothered coach Rivers. “We had a lot of mental lapses today and we got away with it,” he said, “but you can’t be great and do that every night.”

But the outcome meant that his players were spared a postgame lecture. “It just came down to really we made tougher defensive plays down the stretch,” Rivers said. “We had our lapses, there’s no doubt about that, but overall when we’re locked in we’re really good.”

Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic reaches for the ball with Clippers' Lou Williams.
Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic reaches for the ball with Clippers’ Lou Williams during the first half on Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
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Guard Patrick Beverley, asked about the Clippers’ defensive faults, begged to differ with the premise that there was any reason to be concerned. “We held a team to 107 points, one of the best offenses in the league, so I would say that was good defense,” he said. “But overall, we did what we needed to do. We got key stops when we needed to get key stops, we got key rebounds when we needed to get key rebounds.”

The lesson that must be absorbed before Game 4 on Wednesday is simple, Rivers said. “Don’t give points. We gifted a lot of points,” he said. “I think at least six points, where they were taking the ball out, we didn’t get back.

“They took 19 more shots than us. It’s hard to win a game. Can you imagine giving a team 19 more shots and think you’re going to win the game? You have to be so good offensively to win that game and basically, that’s what we were.”

The biggest point is that they were good defensively when they needed it most, the kind of in-game realization and turnaround that championship-caliber teams can make. The Clippers are learning that they can overcome lapses and adversity and control games by skill and will and defense, even if their defensive play is almost laughably bad at times. They had the win and the last laugh on Monday.

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Elliott reported from Los Angeles.


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