Having seen two opportunities to advance to their first conference finals slip away in eerily similar fashion, the Clippers have much to discuss before the seventh and final game against the Denver Nuggets. But at no point before Tuesday’s tipoff, coach Doc Rivers promised, would his team hear a soaring pregame speech.
“Rah-rah speeches are very overrated,” Rivers said Monday. “They last about three minutes and you come running out and you’re fired up and then three minutes later you’ve got to focus on playing basketball.”
Beginnings haven’t been the issue against Denver. It’s their finishes where the Clippers have searched in vain for a pick-me-up, a stop, a made shot and better focus — anything to stop rallies by the Nuggets to win Games 5 and 6 after trailing by 16 and 19 points, respectively.
“What I see the most is our pace offensively,” Rivers said. “Some of that is because they're scoring, but some of that I thought was self-inflicted. And then defensively we have to be better.”
After making 34% of their shots in the second half of Game 5, the Clippers shot 26% after halftime in Sunday’s 111-98 defeat that tied the series. The Nuggets shot 61% in each second half.
The Nuggets' comeback Sunday featured a running, one-footed three-pointer reminiscent of a trick-shot competition by center Nikola Jokic, one of the 16 three-pointers Denver made after halftime in the last two games.
In the same span the Clippers have generated close and open looks but struggled to score. They made just 12 of 31 shots in the paint and 12 of 29 uncontested shots.
After shooting 65% off of drives in three victories this series, the Clippers have shot 41% off drives in the last two games. Lou Williams, the backup Clippers guard lauded as a “walking bucket” by Denver coach Michael Malone, missed three layups Sunday. Kawhi Leonard wasn't immune, either. Open three-pointers hit iron.
Despite so many opportunities for offensive rebounds, the Clippers have scored six second-chance points combined after halftime of their last two games.
“Just went cold,” Leonard said Sunday of an offense that led the postseason’s first round in scoring.
The Clippers can draw from Leonard's calm and Game 7 experience — Rivers called it comforting "to know the moment won't be too big" for the two-time NBA Finals most valuable player. Yet they are in this situation because, in critical moments during Games 5 and 6, they appeared unclear where to turn for answers.
Sunday marked only the 18th game the Clippers have played at full strength, a span that has featured more success than adversity as seen in their 14-4 record. That relative lack of experience facing push-back together has revealed itself against Denver.
The Nuggets responded with the confidence of a team that could write a survival handbook after pushing four consecutive playoff series to Game 7 and winning five consecutive elimination games.
“This game is mental too, man, and it's easy to get lost,” Rivers said. “I thought a lot of that happened last night. We had just blown our lead, and I thought the stress of that, you could see that on our guys. They're looking at the scoreboard too. They know they have an opportunity. They want to win worse than everybody. Like, they do. But that doesn't mean they're going to play perfectly."
Denver hasn’t played perfectly but has stayed aggressive. It led to 16 and 19 free throws in the second halves of Games 5 and 6, respectively, to the Clippers’ 11 in each game.
That aggression helped foul out Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, a second-team all-league defender, in an uncharacteristic 18 minutes, and drew Paul George into foul trouble too.
“[Beverley] is better than that, and he knows that, and that obviously hurts our team and our rotations,” Rivers said. “We have a chance to go up big, but Pat and PG are in foul trouble, and it limits rotations, it limits what you can do.”
Malone isn’t putting a limit on his team. No team has won two series in the same postseason when trailing 3-1.
“This is going to sound really funny, but I almost feel like we're the Bad News Bears and I'm Coach Buttermaker,” Malone said. “We're a team that nobody really looks at and takes us seriously and our guys, I think, have taken that personally.”
Greif reported from Los Angeles.