Clippers show a new mental fortitude forged from playoff disaster

Clippers forward Paul George shoots over Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.
Clippers forward Paul George pulls up for a shot over Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during the Clippers’ 121-108 win Friday.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

When Nicolas Batum watched the Clippers last summer during the NBA restart, it wasn’t so much what he noticed than what he didn’t.

“We all know what happened last year,” Batum said.

Three double-digit leads against Denver in Games 5, 6 and 7 of their second-round playoff series. Three consecutive losses. Season over.

“I think that is just a lack of mental toughness to go out there and finish the job,” guard Patrick Beverley said earlier this month.


Two games into a new season, that resilience has already been put to the test twice by the defending champion Lakers and Denver, with the Clippers emerging each time with a win.

The Clippers are 2-0 after victories over last season’s Western Conference finalists. Here are five takeaways from the Clippers’ defeat of the Denver Nuggets.

Dec. 26, 2020

Coach Tyronn Lue praised his team’s poise Tuesday after seeing a 22-point lead disappear against the Lakers, but even more was required Friday in Denver. Not only was the Clippers’ 21-point lead down to 11 midway through Friday’s fourth quarter, star forward Kawhi Leonard was on his back on the court, bleeding from his mouth.

Seeing Leonard fall after taking an accidental elbow from teammate Serge Ibaka to his jaw led teammate Paul George to begin “thinking of the worst.” Batum, the 6-foot-9 forward who signed with the team as a free agent last month, didn’t see the collision but saw enough of the blood-streaked aftermath to grow concerned.

“I saw his lips, so it didn’t look good at all,” Batum said.

Carefully, while the team’s head athletic trainer held gauze over a laceration that would later require eight stitches in Leonard’s mouth, the Clippers’ superstar walked off the court to the locker room and did not return for the final 6 minutes and 7 seconds of Friday’s game. Leonard is questionable to play Sunday against Dallas because of the laceration, according to the team. And at that moment, it remained to be seen whether the rest of the team would soon be staggering off the court, too, with a gutting loss.

But on the first possession after the injury timeout, Batum drew an offensive foul on Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, who had scored eight of Denver’s previous 10 points.

Three-pointers by Ibaka and Lou Williams kept the lead at 14 with 4:27 to play, and after a three by Murray trimmed the deficit to 11, Beverley answered by making his own three with 2:24 to play. The Clippers (2-0) made five of their final eight shots while holding Denver to 4-of-12 shooting despite the departure of Leonard, their best perimeter defender who had already stolen four passes.


“Nothing was said, we just, you know, next man up,” Lue said. “We know Kawhi is a great player, but we got to have the mind-set that if he goes down, you know, everybody has to be able to step up.”

Having seen the Clippers unravel against Denver from afar last summer, Batum has now watched a pair of responses up close.

“This is where in those moments, you breathe in [as] a team, you guys can get to know who you are as a team,” Batum said. “… We make stops, we didn’t panic, we didn’t do crazy stuff, we didn’t rush. We did a little bit sometimes. That’s what guys corrected because we made bad turnovers and took quick shots, but overall, that was better.”

Lue had a front-row seat as an assistant coach to last season’s end, when Denver outscored the Clippers by 64 points combined during the second halves of the last three games of the series. That Clippers’ offense was reliant on its stars to a fault. Lue has preached the discipline to find another offensive option even if a preferred third option to either Leonard or George isn’t available. Perhaps it is little surprise, then, that the Clippers have passed 317 times on average through their first two games, creating 72.0 points per game off assists, in the process. Both are increases from last season, when the Clippers averaged 271 passes and 61.7 points from assists.

When Leonard left the game, the weight of the offensive workload didn’t fall on George alone, though he did score seven fourth-quarter points. Four different Clippers scored in the final six minutes, with assists coming on four of their final five field goals. That included an assist from George on Beverley’s three-pointer, a shot that “was big and showed the type of team we can be this year,” Batum said.

“A play broke down, we kept swinging it, we didn’t hold it,” George said. “We got into multiple pick-and-rolls, multiple actions, we put the ball on the ground from reversing it from one side of the floor to the other side, we just kept attacking. We have been doing that for the first two games. I think we are getting better at it.”


Kawhi Leonard is left bloodied after catching an elbow to the face by teammate Serge Ibaka in the Clippers’ 121-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets.

Dec. 25, 2020

Two games do not a trend make, but Batum said the resolve displayed against the Lakers and Nuggets did not occur overnight with the start of the regular season. Translating improved mental toughness into better play was discussed throughout training camp, he said.

“I think that was one of the best training camps I’ve ever been through,” Batum said. “We never stop talking to each other. During practice, film, video, in the locker room, on the bus, like every time. We try to correct each other. If someone did something wrong, we’re gonna tell him. And it’s nothing personal. One time before the Lakers game, I didn’t do a good thing in practice, and Pat [Beverley] went straight at me and I need that. We need that to be better as a team because nothing personal, we just have the same goal, we just want to win at the end.

“We know in the West, especially in this same city, it’s gonna be tough because that’s the NBA and that’s the Western Conference, but we need that to be there for each other, in the good and bad moments.”



When: 12:30 p.m., Sunday

On the air: TV: Prime Ticket, NBATV Radio: 570

Update: Marcus Morris (sore knee) will miss his third consecutive game. Lue called his condition “day to day” Friday. ...
Albeit a tiny sample size, more than half of Utah’s and Toronto’s shots in their respective season openers were three-pointers. The Clippers haven’t fired quite as many yet are not far off that pace, with 47% of the team’s shots originating from behind the three-point arc through two games. Last season, threes accounted for 37% of the team’s shots. The Clippers have made 42% of their threes thus far, the best accuracy among the nine teams that have taken the highest volume of three-pointers.