Since before the season tipped-off, the Los Angeles Clippers looked like the champions… on paper.
They had the elite talent, the Sixth Man of the Year depth, the coaching, the strong perimeter defenders, and a two-time Finals MVP. That rarely showed on the court. Injuries, distractions, and rest kept them from playing together, developing chemistry, and going through adversity together. Through it all, there was a sense of entitlement around this team. The Clippers believed when the time came they could flip the switch.
It turns out, they couldn’t even find the switch.
Denver, on the other hand, can flip its switch.
The Nuggets got 40 points from a resurgent Jamal Murray and a dominating triple-double from Nikola Jokic — 16 points, 22 rebounds, 13 assists — to come from double-digits down again to blow the doors off the Clippers and win Game 7 104-89. The Nuggets beat the Clippers and the series 4-3.
The Nuggets advance to the Western Conference Finals to take on the Los Angeles Lakers, starting Friday.
“We are just not accepting that somebody’s better than us,” Jokic said.
“A lot of the issues that we ran into talent bailed us out. Chemistry didn’t…” Lou Williams said of the Clippers. “We’re a highly talented group and we just came up short. Chemistry is something you have to build.”
Denver built it, even with a young team, through continuity of the core and the system. Plus, this team just has grit.
Denver becomes the first team in NBA history to come back from 3-1 down in a series twice in one playoffs — and they did it in the first two rounds. The Nuggets out hustled and out executed the Clippers throughout the last four games, sticking to coach Mike Malone’s game plan. Denver was flat out the better team.
Through the first six games of the series — having learned a lesson from watching what he did to Utah — the Clippers were all over Murray with their best defenders. They would not let him get rolling. The price for that was Jokic had more space and in the past three games he had carved up the Clippers defense. In Game 7, the Clippers doubled hard on Jokic because they didn’t want to let him take them down. It didn’t work — Jokic was passing and still impacting the game — but Murray had more space and stepped up with 25 first-half points. He finished with 40.
In the second half, the Nuggets just beat the Clippers, got whatever they wanted on offense while the Clippers shooters had T-Rex arms.
The Clippers scored just 33 points the entire second half, shooting 28.5% for the half and they were 3-of-18 from three — including Paul George hitting the side of the backboard with a corner three. Here is the clippers’ second-half shot chart.
For the game, Leonard was 6-of-22 shooting, George 4-of-16.
The Clippers’ defense may have been worse than their offense in the second half. Combined that led to an ugly half of basketball and a painful elimination for a team that was championship or bust.
“Just disappointed,” Rivers said. “Honestly, I thought you can see the difference: that team has been together. We haven’t, and you can see it as the games went on… I still didn’t think we trusted [each other].”
With this bust, the Clippers have a lot of questions to answer.
To get George (and with him, Leonard as a free agent), Los Angeles traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, their own first-round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, two other first-round picks belonging to Miami (2021 and 2023), and agreed to pick-swaps with Oklahoma City 2023 and 2025. It was a lot to surrender.
What the Clippers were guaranteed was two years, two playoff runs with those stars. This was one of them, and because of the expectations and hype around this team, it is the on-court low point for a franchise that has had some deep lows before.
Now Doc Rivers’ coaching, the lack of defense in the supporting cast — Montrezl Harrell is a free agent this summer — and what changes can be made all come into question.
The Clippers, they talked about the lack of chemistry. Rivers mentioned multiple players missed time in the bubble (for excused, legitimate reasons, plus some wings) and that hurt the Clippers chemistry and conditioning (several Clippers were gassed at the end of the game).
“We understand this is gonna be a quick offseason,” Williams said of the postgame locker room message. “Let’s get back to work and continue to build for next year.”
Once again, it’s wait until next year for the Clippers.
Not for the Nuggets, who had better chemistry, were the better team in this series, and beat the Clippers. The future is now for this young team.