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Clippers blow late lead in Game 5, fail to close out Nuggets

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard tries to steal the ball from Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during Game 5 on Sept. 11, 2020.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard tries to steal the ball from Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during Game 5 on Friday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The Clippers were 12 minutes away from accomplishing the unprecedented.

Now they have two games to stave off a torturous repeat of their history.

Ahead and in control from the start of Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal Friday, with the 50-year-old franchise’s first conference final appearance in sight, the Clippers could not finish off Denver in a 111-105 defeat that extends the series at least two more days while reviving memories of past playoff breakdowns.

“We had them on the line; we gave a game up,” said forward Paul George, who scored 26 points. “Game 6, we got to come in and put them away.”

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Kawhi Leonard had 36 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals in Game 5, but he will need more help if the Clippers want to oust Denver.

Only two days before it was George who had cautioned that, entering Friday’s potential close-out game, “a team like that, you can’t give them no life.” He had watched Denver rally from down 3-1 to win its best-of-seven-game first-round series against Utah too.

No team has won two series in the same postseason when trailing 3-1, but Denver wouldn’t mind making history while denying the Clippers some of their own.

“I know everybody’s excited about the Lakers playing the Clippers in the Western Conference finals,” Denver coach Mike Malone said. “But we’re hoping to have something to say about that.”

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Up by as many as 16 points, and seven entering the final quarter, the Clippers made 28% of their shots in the fourth while Denver shot 61%. The Nuggets made seven of their final nine three-pointers, including one by Nikola Jokic with 7:06 remaining that gave Denver its first lead in two games.

“We definitely lost our discipline, there’s no doubt about that,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I guess that would be the lesson.”

It is one the Clippers have learned the way hard before.

Jayson Tatum’s 29 points helped the Boston Celtics beat the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors 92-87 in Game 7 to earn a spot in the East finals.

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The defeat revived memories of 2015, when the Clippers led their second-round series against Houston 3-1 before collapsing in a seven-game loss. It left the Clippers shellshocked and the notion of the so-called “Clippers curse” alive and well.

Jamal Murray scored 26 points to lead Denver and Jokic scored 22, but the biggest shot belonged to reserve Michael Porter Jr., the 6-foot-10 forward who had asked for just such a moment to shine.

A rookie, Porter stirred controversy after Game 4 when he suggested that his scoreless second half was the result of his coach’s play calls, and that Denver needed to broaden its offensive options beyond Murray and Jokic. Porter was drilled for the comments by NBA veterans — Malone said before tipoff that they should have been kept in-house.

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Key plays from the Clippers’ 111-105 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal series Friday.

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He answered with 1:11 remaining, and his team leading by two, by drilling a 27-foot three-pointer.

“Something made me shoot it,” he said.

It was the only field goal of the night for Porter, whom the Clippers passed on drafting in 2018 because of back injuries that cost him his first season in the league.

“What you love about Michael is that whether it’s just youthful inexperience or not really understanding the magnitude of the situation, but he has supreme confidence,” Malone said.

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Two possessions later, Porter stuffed Clippers center Ivica Zubac at the rim.

Kawhi Leonard was his trademark calm after the loss, calling it a learning lesson. He is not one to panic. Last season, his Toronto Raptors trailed 2-0 in the second round, only to go on to win the NBA championship. He scored 13 of his team-high 36 points in the fourth quarter.

But with Leonard off the floor because of changed rotations to end the third quarter and begin the fourth, the Clippers’ lead began to falter. Denver rattled off a 14-2 run. Paul Millsap had 14 points in the third quarter for the Nuggets.

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“We had leads like this all year, and you know, teams came back on us,” Leonard said. “We just got to keep fighting.”

Leading by four with 1:58 remaining and with the Clippers attempting to rally, Denver suffered a major blow when its best perimeter defender, Gary Harris, fouled out on a possession that ended with Leonard making two free throws.

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The Nuggets’ lead was down to two — where it would stay until Porter’s shot gave his team another shot to keep their season alive.

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“We gave them a little bit of life and they played desperation ball,” George said. “They didn’t have a choice. They played desperation ball. Credit them for not wanting to go home. They played great down the stretch. We just had to match it. But like I said, it all comes down to our approach in Game 6.”

Greif reported from Los Angeles.


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