“We were a significantly different team,” said Malone.
It also led to a significantly different result.
Blown away in Game 1, the Nuggets led the way in Game 2 of their Western Conference semi-final series with the Los Angeles Clippers. Jamal Murray scored 27 points, Nikola Jokic had 26 points and 18 rebounds and the Nuggets prevailed 110-101 to tie the series to one game each.
Gary Harris and Paul Millsap each added 13 points for Denver, which lost by 23 in Game 1 of the series.
“We were tired,” Murray said of Game 1’s performance. “We came out sloppy, we came out exhausted, we didn’t hit and it showed.
This was not the case on Saturday. Murray and Jokic were a combined 20 for 38 from floor, 7 for 13 from 3 points.
Paul George scored 22 points for the Clippers, who got 15 from Ivica Zubac and endured a rare offensive night from Kawhi Leonard. The two-time NBA Finals MVP had 13 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, but only shot 4 for 17.
Leonard had scored at least 20 points in 27 of his last 28 playoff games – and had at least 29 in all seven playoff games this season.
“We dug into a 20-point hole early on,” Leonard said. “We can’t do that… but give the Nuggets credit. They came very aggressive tonight on both sides, they played well and they won the game.
It was Leonard’s weakest playoff game since he had 13 for San Antonio on April 19, 2016 against Memphis, 52 appearances after the season ago.
“A few easy ones didn’t come early, and it’s from there,” Leonard said.
The Clippers followed 23 and came close to five in the fourth quarter, but no closer. Murray and Harris had 3 points on back-to-back possessions to help keep the Nuggets on top, and Patrick Beverley, ejected with a pair of techniques with 1:04 left, helped seal things off.
Murray made two free throws for techniques, Grant added another for a staff that was called up and the lead was 11. George dribbled the ball from his knee on the Clippers’ next possession and the result was academic. from there.
“Honestly, I thought they were just playing more aggressive,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “They penetrated us throughout the game.”
Denver set the tone from the start, starting 14-2 and eventually moving up 44-23 even before the first quarter was over. Jokic and Murray dominated the Clippers on their own in the opening 12 minutes, 26-25.
“They did a good job invading us,” said George. “And we have to be better.”
It was 72-56 at halftime, the Clippers’ third biggest intermission deficit of the season.
The Clippers’ best score ultimately came in the fourth, with George launching a personal 7-0 push to take the Clippers to 91-86 – the smallest lead for the Nuggets since 7-2.
Denver immediately responded with the run 10-0, pushing back the lead to 15 on a pair of free throws from Jerami Grant with 5:22 left.
“Our group believes in itself,” said Malone. “We have shown that we are a very resilient group who can perform and find ways to win in close length matches. It’s great to be able to tie this series together and have that life and that belief in the next game.
Nuggets: Denver tied a season best for all quarters with 44 points in the first. It was the Nuggets’ second-best quarter-time in NBA playoff history, scoring 47 points in the fourth against the Los Angeles Lakers on May 14, 1985.… Denver beat the Clippers 45-27 of 3 points.
Clippers: The 23-point deficit was the Clippers’ biggest in the bubble (21 against Brooklyn on August 9) and the biggest this season since facing a 28-point deficit against Minnesota on February 8. … The 44 first-quarter points allowed were the fourth most by the Clippers in any period this season. They’ve given up 45 three times and won two of those matches.
Nuggets on the rise
History, of course, says that a 0-2 hole would have been very difficult for Denver. The Nuggets have never rallied 0-2 in a best-of-seven in their NBA history; they won one of 13 NBA series after losing the first two games, and it was the best of five times for first-seeded Seattle in the first round of 1994. They won six of 19 series previous ones that were tied 1-1.
This is the ninth postseason series Rivers has coached the Clippers in. The Clippers have split the first two games in eight of those nine clashes.
The third game will take place on Monday.