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Clippers fall behind early, can’t catch up in Game 2 loss to Nuggets

When Denver's Gary Harris caught Nikola Jokic's cross-court pass with six minutes remaining Saturday, there wasn't a defender within 10 feet.

When Denver‘s Gary Harris caught Nikola Jokic’s cross-court pass with six minutes remaining Saturday, there wasn’t a defender within 10 feet.

Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard had run to the baseline to block Jerami Grant’s cut to the basket. Forward JaMychal Green slid closer to cover Paul Millsap near the top of the three-point arc. It left Harris wide open. Since returning from an injured hip, Harris had made just two of his 11 three-pointers in his last three post-season games. It was, in other words, the kind of shot the Clippers could live with.

It turned out to be a shot that killed their comeback hopes in Game 2 of this Western Conference semi-final series.

Harris drilled the shot, which followed a three-pointer he’d made two possessions earlier as well. Denver‘s lead, which had been cut from 23 points to just five midway through the fourth quarter, was back to 13. And because of timely plays by Nuggets role players including Harris in the second half – after stars Jamal Murray and Jokic carried them in the first half – this series is tied at one game apiece following Denver‘s 110-101 victory.

Murray finished with 27 points and Jokic 26, but they combined for just nine points after half-time.

Instead it was Paul Millsap, a bystander in Game 1, who scored eight third-quarter points. It was Grant who swiped away shots at the rim by Paul George and JaMychal Green in the fourth quarter. And it was Harris, who made all three of his three-pointers in the fourth quarter.

George finished with 22 points and eight rebounds. Kawhi Leonard had 10 rebounds and eight assists but his 13 points came on 17 shots. The Clippers produced nearly as many turnovers (17) as assists (20) and the Clippers’ frustration lingered until the end, when starting guard Patrick Beverley was ejected after arguing a foul and earning two technicals.

In Thursday’s series-opening loss, Denver‘s reserves were emotionless throughout the final quarter. In contrast, they jumped from their folding chairs to start Game 2 as they led 14-2, then 23-9. The Clippers didn’t settle for rushed, bad shots, they just couldn’t make any of their closest looks, as they missed seven of their first eight shots in the paint. George and Leonard, double-teamed after every touch near the basket, missed their first eight combined shots.

By the first quarter’s end Murray and Jokic had scored 26 points _ they combined for 27 in all of Game 1 – to create a 19-point lead. Denver shot 72 per cent.

Yet Denver was spry in the first quarter Thursday, as well, while shooting nearly 60 per cent; it was the second quarter where their weary legs turned their perimeter defenders into matadors.

“The areas that gave us trouble weren’t pick-and-roll coverage, it wasn’t catch-and-shoot coverage, or low-post defence coverage, it was, can I guard my man one-on-one?” Denver coach Mike Malone said before tip-off. “And can I give the necessary help behind that?”

Their trouble in the second quarter came from an unexpected source: offence. A line-up of five perimeter shooters inserted by Doc Rivers seven minutes before half-time generated scored a single point in their nearly 90 seconds together, yet pitched a shut-out defensively. With Denver scoreless for four minutes, the Clippers crept within 13. Yet they still ended the first half with more turnovers (12) than assists (11), with George and Leonard responsible for half the turnovers. Denver‘s 72 points were one shy of tying a playoff record set 35 years before.

Denver went cold in the third quarter, making just two of their 11 three-pointers, and 27 per cent of their shots overall. But given an opportunity to close the gap, the Clippers’ own offence flailed, missing all six of their three-pointers. They began the fourth quarter trailing by 12.

George appeared to hyperextend his right leg while making a floater over Mason Plumlee with nine minutes to play to cut the deficit to 10 points. He walked into the ensuing timeout wincing, favouring the leg, but returned immediately and dove to the floor for a loose ball. When he slithered to the rim for a right-handed layup on the next possession, the Nuggets’ lead was down to single digits for the first time in 33 minutes.

Only 54 seconds later, George’s three-pointer brought his teammates off the bench.

It was their last feel-good moment of the evening. Denver scored the next eight points, including two three-pointers by Harris.

The Clippers could not muster a response. They made four of their last 11 field goals.

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