Nikola Jokic, Nuggets to Face Lakers After Stunning Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2020

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) shoots past LA Clippers forward JaMychal Green (4) during the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

A word of warning to the Los Angeles Lakers: Do not go up 3-1 against the Denver Nuggets.

Denver completed a 3-1 comeback for the second consecutive playoff series with a 104-89 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 7 of their second-round clash Tuesday at Walt Disney World Resort.

Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray led the way with impressive performances and set up a showdown with the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

As for the Clippers, an abysmal performance in the second half led to a third consecutive loss as they completed a stunning collapse. They scored just 33 points after halftime and looked nothing like the title contenders many assumed they were all season.


Notable Player Stats

  • Jamal Murray, G, DEN: 40 PTS, 5 AST, 4 REB, 15-of-26 FG, 6-of-13 3PT
  • Nikola Jokic, C, DEN: 16 PTS, 22 REB, 13 AST, 3 BLK, 2 STL
  • Kawhi Leonard, F, LAC: 14 PTS, 6 AST, 6 REB, 2 STL, 6-of-22 FG
  • Paul George, F, LAC: 10 PTS, 4-of-16 FG, 2-of-11 3PT
  • Montrezl Harrell, F, LAC: 20 PTS
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Clippers Complete One of Biggest Letdowns in Recent NBA History

It isn't particularly difficult to argue the Clippers are the most talented team in the league.

Kawhi Leonard is the reigning NBA Finals MVP and might be the best two-way player in the league. No. 2 options don't get much better than Paul George, who is a six-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA selection and four-time All-Defensive selection who can guard the opponent's best player and take over offensively.

The supporting cast is also loaded with difference-makers in Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Marcus Morris Sr., Ivica Zubac, Montrezl Harrell and JaMychal Green, among others, and Doc Rivers is a championship-winning coach.

Anything short of a championship could have been classified as a disappointment, let alone blowing a 3-1 lead in the second round when they had a 16-point halftime lead in Game 6.

Harrell set the tone in the opening stretch by finding openings around the rim and taking advantage of defenders paying more attention to Leonard, George and Williams. But to avoid a disastrous collapse, the Clippers needed Leonard or George to play like a star in the biggest moments.

Both players struggled to find their shooting touch as Denver turned an initial deficit into a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter.

George struggled with turnovers and his shot while Leonard, who proved how clutch he can be throughout last season's playoffs on the Toronto Raptors, found nothing but iron a number of times while attempting to answer Denver's second-half runs.

In fact, L.A. didn't score a single field goal through the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter. It was a a stunning display of offensive ineptitude with the season on the line, and the Clippers are going home because of it.


Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic Further Cement Superstar Status in Win

The biggest question for the Nuggets entering the game was whether Jokic or Murray had one more magical performance in them to propel the team to the Western Conference Finals.

Jokic dominated the majority of this series, averaging 25.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists through the first six games as a walking double-double. Murray is capable of heating up at a moment's notice and turned in some of the best offensive displays of the entire playoffs during a first-round showdown with Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz.

Murray showed that magic right out of the gates Tuesday.

He poured in 25 points in the first half alone, mixing in a combination of floaters and triples while taking advantage of the time George was on the bench with foul trouble. He was the biggest reason the Nuggets were down only two at the half despite falling behind by double digits early.

His ability to keep the Nuggets within striking distance helped them seize control in the third quarter.

Los Angeles' defense continued to collapse on the two stars, which created wide-open looks for Jerami Grant, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap. Perhaps nobody in the league is better equipped to take advantage of that space than Jokic, who continued to make the right passes while controlling the boards.

Denver's defense assumed the starring role in the fourth quarter and held the Clippers to only 15 points as the the presumptive favorite pressed in an attempt to answer Denver's pair of superstars.

They just never could.


What's Next?

The Nuggets will face the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, while the Clippers turn their attention toward the offseason and potentially adding more pieces to take the next step.