For one game, the Los Angeles Clippers demonstrated what they look like on paper.
The Clippers coasted to a 120-97 win over the Denver Nuggets on Thursday in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. Kawhi Leonard played like a star (29 points). So did Paul George (19). Marcus Morris Sr. (18) and Patrick Beverley offered scoring and defense. Lou Williams (15) and Montrezl Harrell (10) provided secondary scoring as they often do. It had the feeling that this playoff series has ended before it even started.
“That team went through a seven-game series” Leonard said of the Nuggets. “I’m sure they will come back more prepared.”
Fair enough. Leonard has won two NBA championships with two different teams and knows a playoff series never is truly over after one game. The Clippers just got through a competitive first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks in six games. In the Nuggets’ case, they looked fatigued after overcoming a 3-1 series deficit against the Utah Jazz in the first round. They showed no ability to build off the momentum two days after finishing off the Jazz. So expect the Nuggets’ Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic to improve on their combined 11-of-29 clip from the field. Or for Nuggets coach Mike Malone to make some adjustments. Still, that doesn’t seem like it will be enough. At least not to seriously threaten the Clippers. That will only happen if the Clippers struggle to master their greatest challenge: themselves.
“You’re in the playoffs. But I didn’t think we joined it until like Game 4,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “But now we’re here and are playing well and playing hard. We’re going to make mistakes. But when you play hard, you can cover up for them. I thought we did that tonight.”
So why didn’t the Clippers do that against Dallas? Sure, the Clippers had blown double-digit leads against the Mavericks. In fairness to the Clippers, though, they also dealt with plenty of extenuating circumstances. Mavericks guard Luka Doncic has already become a transcendent star in this league in only his second season. The Mavericks showed they could have threatened the Clippers had center Kristaps Porzingis not gotten ejected in the middle of Game 1, or suffered an injury to his right knee that kept him out for Games 4-6. George shot a combined 10-of-47 in Games 2-4 while admittedly struggling with his mental health because of ongoing challenges with playing in the bubble. Harrell fought rust after missing the entire season restart because of the death of his grandmother. Beverley missed the past five games because of a strained left calf.