Game 3 of the Nuggets-Clippers series showed that Denver’s Game 2 effort wasn’t a fluke and that they’re going to make the Clippers work for a conference finals berth, but this time L.A. was ready to respond to Denver’s activity and energy level.
The Nuggets took an early lead and threatened to run away with things in the second quarter, but a furious L.A. rally, spurred on by some tremendous defense, cut the Denver lead to two at the break. The two teams traded leads and runs in the second half, but the Nuggets offense went cold at the wrong time in the closing minutes and the Clippers, who got into the bonus midway through the fourth quarter, attacked the Denver defense to create good looks and get to the foul line to pull away.
A couple late Nuggets buckets made things close, but they were never able to string enough stops and scores together in the final minutes to pull out another win, with L.A. going ahead 2-1 thanks to a 113-107 victory. Here are our three takeaways from a highly entertaining Game 3.
1. Paul George stepped up
The Nuggets made their defensive gameplan very clear in Game 2 and stuck with it in Game 3, blitzing Kawhi Leonard with ball pressure from Jerami Grant and doubling him in the pick-and-roll game to force the ball out of his hands. In Game 2, the rest of the Clippers struggled to step up as Leonard struggled to create for himself against that pressure, but in Game 3 Leonard was patient in passing out of doubles and Paul George stepped up big time with 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting (5-of-7 from three) to go along with four assists and four rebounds.
.@Yg_Trece is cookin'.
27 points in 29 minutes. pic.twitter.com/t5XMsRvcrI
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) September 8, 2020
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) September 8, 2020
George’s early struggles in these playoffs were well documented, but he’s been steadily improving and while he seems to understand Kawhi is going to take a leading role, when teams send extra attention at Leonard he’s asserting himself much better and Game 3 was a high point of his playoffs thus far. He doesn’t have to do this every night, because there will be times Leonard takes over, but showing that he can do this will make defenses think long and hard about how to gameplan for this Clippers offense and sending extra help at Leonard.
You could argue Denver played better than the Clippers in this game, but that George and Leonard simply out-talented them to a win. That ability, to win when your team doesn’t have its best stuff because of your stars, is often the difference between a championship team and the very good teams. It’s what people thought we’d get from L.A. this season but doubts began creeping in earlier in the postseason George would hold up his end of the deal. Now he is and if they can get both of their stars going at the same time, that’s going to make them the title contender everyone projected them to be.
2. Nikola Jokic is giving the Clippers absolute hell
Jokic damn near dragged the Nuggets to a win in this one (with a major assist off the bench from Michael Porter Jr.), but ultimately they fell short as the shooting around the Serbian superstar was simply lacking down the stretch. Jokic had 32 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists, hitting 13-of-24 from the field and 3-of-8 from three. He dug deep in his bag of tricks, throwing ridiculous passes, getting every Clipper big in foul trouble by banging in the post, and stepping out to three-point range for a personal 9 point run at one point on three straight possessions.
Nonstop dimes from Jokic 🎯 pic.twitter.com/Hj5AY49Kxn
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 8, 2020
Every game is a passing clinic. pic.twitter.com/tU4J883TYK
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) September 8, 2020
On a night where Jamal Murray simply didn’t have it, going 5-of-17 from the field for 14 points, Jokic was sensational, continuing his excellent play from Game 2. That bodes well for Denver, as his engagement (and he was likewise very active defensively for a second straight game) is huge for their ability to be at their best. Now, they just need Murray to find his stroke again and have someone else be able to hit a three, as the rest of the Nuggets were just 8-of-26 from deep.
3. The Clippers made more winning plays
Denver was awesome in this game, but when it came down to it at the end, the Clippers made the necessary plays. There were certainly questionable whistles in this game (on both ends), but L.A. was the aggressor late, attacking the Denver defense to force contact and get to the stripe once in the bonus — something Denver didn’t do in the second quarter when they were in a similar situation. Defensively, the Clippers appeared to be sleep-walking early in the game, but down the stretch they seemed to flip the proverbial switch and made some tremendous plays, highlighted by Kawhi Leonard’s fingertip block of a Jamal Murray dunk attempt in the final minutes.
Denver couldn’t hit the same shots they did in Game 2 in Game 3, and that really made the difference. A pair of wide open threes for Jerami Grant went begging and neither Murray nor Jokic could conjure up much for themselves in isolation play or the pick-and-roll. L.A. clearly is going to focus on taking those two away in key moments and beg the question of Grant and Gary Harris and the rest. Harris answered the call in Game 2, but Grant couldn’t in Game 3. That will have to change going forward in order for the Nuggets to have a chance at closing games out if they find themselves in more tight games in this series, because we know L.A. has arguably the league’s best closer in Kawhi Leonard on their side.