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Clippers stay composed to beat Nuggets and are one win shy of first conference finals

Clippers' Kawhi Leonard is defended by Denver Nuggets' Michael Porter Jr.
Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard is defended by Denver Nuggets’ Michael Porter Jr. during the second half on Wednesday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Clippers guard Patrick Beverley was dribbling upcourt just shy of midcourt during Wednesday’s fourth quarter when Nikola Jokic reached out his left arm and whacked him in the chest.

Beverley went two more steps before stopping and pivoting toward Denver’s 7-footer. Clad in matching salmon-colored polo shirts, the entire Clippers coaching staff leaped out of their sideline seats, ready to play peacemaker. It was easy to anticipate the worst.

Only two days earlier, Beverley had raised the ire of the Nuggets when, after the Clippers’ victory in Game 3 of this Western Conference semifinal, he said that Jokic was difficult to guard because of his “flailing.” Denver coach Michael Malone responded the next day with a verbal fastball, up and in: “I don’t listen to Patrick Beverley a whole lot.”

Yet Tuesday’s war of words never became Wednesday’s show of fists.

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Instead of approaching Jokic, Beverley walked toward his bench with a smile and palms raised, assuring he would do no harm. Nothing, in the end, came from the moment. But it said everything about the Clippers’ 96-85 victory to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.

Though the Clippers controlled most of the night, there were stretches where their composure was tested and their will could have been rattled by a Nuggets team that has already refused to go quietly once before this postseason.

The Clippers set tone by holding the Denver Nuggets’ vaunted offense to 12 points in first quarter in Game 4.

Each time, the Clippers’ cooler heads, and crisper execution, prevailed. And because of it, the 50-year-old franchise is one win away from its first appearance in a conference finals.

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Down 18 in the first half, Denver battled back to forge a 48-all tie early in the third quarter. The Clippers’ answer was to build a 16-point lead within the next seven minutes. When it was down to 10 by the end of the third quarter, the Clippers allowed Denver to make one of its next six shots. The lead was 19 with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter — and then, just three minutes later, it was nine.

The Clippers made a final stand, allowing two points on Denver’s final five possessions, to hold the Nuggets to a season-low point total.

“Yeah, they made their runs,” said Paul George, who scored 10 points while battling foul trouble. “I keep saying, the game, there’s always going to be runs. In the third quarter, I thought we brought the defense back. Even when they made their runs, the fourth quarter I thought we rallied again and got stops when we needed to put the game away.

“So I think we’re fine in figuring out, you know, once our defense is there, that creates everything for this team.”

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Kawhi Leonard had 30 points, with 11 rebounds and nine assists, the first player in franchise history to record at least that many points, rebounds and assists in a postseason game. Leonard said the Clippers are “still learning each other,” preaching caution.

“The Denver team does not quit,” Leonard said. “They have got a good group over there, a good coach. So we still fighting.”

Ivica Zubac added 11 points and nine rebounds, and Montrezl Harrell added 15 points in 18 minutes off the bench.

Jokic scored a team-high 26 points with 11 rebounds but Denver couldn’t recover from a first quarter in which it scored 12 points, the second-fewest ever given up by the Clippers in a postseason quarter.

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Outside of the free-throw line, however, the Clippers’ offense began to hit dead ends.

They finished with 41% shooting, 28% on three-pointers, and nine offensive rebounds became only nine points.

“We got great shots tonight, we just couldn’t make shots and I’m sure they are feeling the same way,” coach Doc Rivers said. “But instead of worrying about the shots we wasn’t making, we just kept playing defense and that allowed us to win the game.”

Anthony Davis joined Giannis Antetokoumpo and Rudy Gobert on the NBA All-Defensive first team. Clippers Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley are on second team.

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Down 3-1 for a second consecutive series, Denver is searching for answers after a night in which the Clippers had more.

“The job isn’t done,” Harrell said. “It’s first to four wins.”

Three observations:

1. In a change from the Clippers’ usual rotations, guard Reggie Jackson fell out of the lineup and played one minute.

2. After failing to make a three-pointer for the first time this postseason Monday, Marcus Morris Sr. made three of his five threes in Game 4.

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3. After a Game 3 in which multiple centers got in foul trouble, and JaMychal Green tweaked an ankle, the Clippers activated backup center Joakim Noah for the first time this series. He was not used, however.

Greif reported from Los Angeles.


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