ORLANDO • The Denver Nuggets ripped up the made-in-Hollywood script, stunning the Los Angeles Clippers 104-89 in Game 7 to reach their first Western Conference finals in 11 years.
Denver will once again be the underdogs when they face LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals beginning tomorrow. But Jamal Murray issued a warning – on and off the court – for those who think the Lakers’ juggernaut is going to steamroll them.
The guard scored a game-high 40 points at Walt Disney World and Nikola Jokic had a triple-double as third-seeded Denver became the first team in National Basketball Association (NBA) history to rally from a 3-1 series deficit twice in the same post-season.
They are also the only team in play-off history with three straight double-digit comeback wins when facing elimination.
In Game 5, they overcame a 16-point deficit. In Game 6, they overturned a 19-point hole. And on Tuesday, they fought back after being down by 12 in the first half.
“I think this is our sixth straight elimination game,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Seventy-one days in the bubble and just to stay together, that commitment, that toughness is – you don’t see that around very often.”
In contrast, the Clippers once again failed to reach the conference finals. They fell to 0-8 all-time in games where they could have made that breakthrough. They also led 3-1 against the Houston Rockets in the second round in 2015.
This time, they had the reigning Finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard and his superstar sidekick Paul George; a deep bench headlined by Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell; a championship coach; and a revitalised franchise bankrolled by the NBA’s richest owner Steve Ballmer.
They were supposed to be title contenders challenging the balance of power in Hollywood. Instead the Clippers collapsed.
Leonard and George combined to score five points on two-of-18 shooting in the second half.
Denver’s record when facing elimination games this year.
Nine-year veteran Leonard recorded the worst field goal percentage in any half of his career in which he had at least 10 attempts, making one of 11 shots.
He managed just 14 points, Patrick Beverley scored 11 and George finished with 10, while Harrell had 20 points for the second-seeded Clippers.
“I am the coach and I’ll take any blame for it,” coach Doc Rivers said. “But we didn’t meet our expectations, clearly. Honestly, you could just see the difference in the two teams. That team has been together. We haven’t.”
Denver have the chemistry that the Clippers lacked.
“We are just improving. We have talks, we have fights, everything. We are like a couple,” Jokic said of playing with Murray after the dynamic duo combined for 56 points.
The Serbian big man completed his triple-double by the third quarter and finished with 16 points, 13 assists and 22 rebounds. His rebound count is the most by a Nuggets player in an NBA play-off game, breaking his old record of 19.
The top-seeded Lakers have been cautioned.
“They got to worry about us too,” Murray said.