With nothing to lose, the Nuggets didn’t.
Instead, facing elimination for the fifth time in this postseason, the Nuggets showed the resolve of a team that believes it can write even more history than it already has. Trailing by 19 points early in the third quarter, the Nuggets stormed back to save their season and extend their stay in the bubble for at least another game. Their improbable 111-98 win Sunday afternoon over the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals forced their fourth consecutive Game 7 in as many playoff series.
It’s their third comeback this postseason when trailing by at least 15 points in the second half of an elimination game, and second straight. Sunday’s 64-35 second half had the Clippers reeling.
Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic had a game-high 34 points, snatched 14 rebounds and dished seven assists. His four 3-pointers helped crush the Clippers’ second-half will. Jamal Murray added 21 points, five assists and five rebounds, while Gary Harris registered a playoff-high 16 points.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined for 58 points, but their teammates looked dejected as the Nuggets poured it on.
The Nuggets could’ve been dead in the water after Paul George leveled Murray on a layup early in the third quarter that left Denver’s fiery point guard writhing on the floor. With no foul called, George came down and drained a 3-pointer to stretch the Clippers’ lead to 19.
But from there, the Nuggets scrapped. They defended as if their hair was on fire — at one point holding the Clippers scoreless for more than six minutes — while simultaneously chipping away on the other end. They got to the free-throw line 16 times in the third quarter alone, while relying on their franchise cornerstones to initiate. Jokic and Murray’s methodical offense authored a 30-16 third-quarter advantage and saw the Nuggets climb within 79-77 heading into the fourth.
After taking the hard foul, Murray punctuated the comeback with a vicious two-handed jam, flying by George and sparking his team in the process.
Before the game, Nuggets coach Michael Malone reminded his team that they had no reason to feel any pressure. As Malone said Saturday, many had already written his scrappy bunch off.
“We’ve always been counted out,” Malone said. “We’ve always been a team that was too young, not talented enough.”
But they’d also been in this position four times already this postseason.
“We’ve won four straight elimination games,” Malone said. “I think our players are very comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Regardless of Game 6’s outcome, the Nuggets had already garnered Los Angeles coach Doc Rivers’ respect by the way they competed.
“I don’t think they relish the position, I think that’s a narrative,” Rivers said. “I don’t think anyone’s like, ‘Hey, let’s get down 3-1.’ … I just think they understand that their backs are against the wall, and I respect that. They don’t give in.”
The Nuggets played their brand of basketball for almost the entire first half. They trailed 47-45 with just under six minutes left in the second quarter before they lost their composure. Turnovers fueled the Clippers’ break, and everything on offense was a struggle. L.A. closed the half on a 16-2 run that stole any momentum the Nuggets had built previously. The Clippers’ 63-47 halftime lead was built on high-pressure defense and Leonard’s devastating strength.
Jokic sliced Los Angeles’ frontcourt in the first half with 15 points and seven rebounds, but his team’s turnovers kept undermining their mission. He, Harris and Michael Porter Jr. combined for eight in the first half alone. During one demoralizing moment, Murray was stripped cleanly by Leonard’s probing paws.
The open floor gave the Clippers’ stars ample opportunity against Denver’s transition defense. Leonard and George combined for 31 over the first two quarters.
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