ORLANDO, Fla. -- Clippers coach Doc Rivers waited on his team to show up in their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks. They were four games deep, Rivers said, before he recognized the crew he believes can win it all.
He didn’t have to wait in this time around. The Clippers got off to a great start, clicking on all fronts in a 120-97 rout of the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of this Western Conference semifinal matchup.
The shaky moments that plagued the Clippers against the Mavericks vanished with a few days of rest, against a Nuggets team operating on fumes after the first quarter Thursday.
It helped that Rivers had his entire roster intact to open this series, just the 13th time this season that he’s had everyone at his disposal and the first since the season restarted here July 30.
Patrick Beverley was back in the starting lineup after missing the the final five games against the Mavericks with a strained calf. Marcus Morris was back on the floor and in a groove, free from having to battle with Mavericks star Luka Doncic. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were locked in a rhythm from the start. And the bench crew, the best in the league led by Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, were back in familiar positions.
“I thought we just locked into our assignments,” George said, “To be honest, that’s the best we’ve done so far against an opponent. Our attention to detail was great and we followed the game plan … It just took us to lock in tonight and come here and do what we needed to do. There’s no sugar-coating answer or no headline answer. We just locked into what we needed to do, And that was enough for us to play with energy and effort. We just knew what our job was tonight and we executed it.”
Beverley played just 12 minutes but finished with eight points, six rebounds and two assists and received universal praise for his presence and energy. All those things were sorely missed from their defensive captain in the first-round series against the Mavericks.
“He gives us energy,” Rivers said. “We’re not a particularly loud team on the floor defensively. Pat is, in a lot of ways with that starting lineup, a defensive captain with his voice. He calls out coverages, he holds everybody responsible and to have that voice to start games is just invaluable. And then what it does is it just leaks over to the rest of the team. When you see him playing like that and talking like that on defense, it helps the entire team.”
Beverley was in agony watching in street clothes. The opportunity to get back into the action for Game 1 energized the Clippers’ energizer.
“Everyone has a different role on the team, you might say,” Beverley said. “I take my role very seriously. I understand I’m the point guard, getting guys in the right places offensively, making sure I’m doing my job defensively … you know, it’s a hard job. But I’m fortunate to be the one to be able to do it. And like I said, sitting out, this injury definitely humbled me, man. I appreciate the game a lot more, for sure.”
Rivers reminded his team how much fun this series would be if they moved the ball, paid attention to the details and embraced the challenge ahead. Each game, each win, is another step on the road to a place the Clippers have never been as a franchise: the Western Conference finals.
“I think we played alright, I think it works,” Morris said after another particularly effective night on both ends (18 points on 7-for-10 shooting and 4-for-5 on 3-pointers). “We’re just coming in here every day and working hard. Guys are on the same page. We have high IQ guys, so you know it’s fun. And with a coach like Doc, he’s putting it all together and it’s coming out with a good outcome,”
The Nuggets clearly didn’t have the energy needed to deal with the Clippers in the opener. Fresh off of an emotional Game 7 win over Utah Tuesday night in their first-round series, the adrenaline was flowing in a back-and-forth first quarter.
The Clippers kept going into the second quarter while fatigue set in on the Nuggets. A 38-20 blitz, including a 23-11 run to end the quarter, blew the game open for good.
“Just too much 1-on-1, not enough ball movement, not enough player movement and random offense,” said Nuggets coach Mike Malone. “But, we were tired. [Friday] we’ll try and give them as much rest as we can and have a more energetic performance come Saturday night.”
... It was just a bad, bad night for us. But we can change, we can be better."
The Game 2 rebound will need to start with Jamal Murray and All-Star center Nikola Jokic, the stars that carried the Nuggets against the Jazz. Murray scored 145 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and dished out 24 assists in Denver's four wins in that series. Jokic averaged 26.3 points and 8.1 rebounds this postseason before Thursday night, shooting a blistering 47.8% on 3-pointers.
They combined for 27 points on 11-for-29 shooting (2-for-10 from distance), struggling to find the energy that fueled the Nuggets the last time they played.
“We didn’t make shots, we were rushing shots,” Jokic said. “You could say whatever and it’s going to be true, so, it was just a bad, bad night for us. They affect us but we affect us too. But we can change, we can be better. We can be better.”
The Clippers didn’t present anything the Nuggets weren’t expecting. This is a step up in weight class for a team that had to win three straight against the Jazz to make the conference semifinals for the second straight season.
The Clippers have been talked about at as a championship favorite since Leonard and George were acquired last summer in free agency and a trade, respectively.
There are no secrets here in the bubble, where teams share space in the same hotel and basically everywhere else within the confines of the NBA campus.
There’s no escape from the obvious. The Clippers took advantage of a team they knew had just one day to recover and refocus while they had a little extra time to rest and recharge after finishing off the Mavericks Sunday.
“It’s just great, great to have everybody together,” George said, “We’ve been saying it all year. It’s good for us to just continue to build this chemistry. I thought we looked great tonight. We did everything. Everybody helped. We gad great energy, we were vocal and we just wanted it. We wanted to play for one another. And it was just fun basketball playing with everybody.”
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