The Nuggets didn’t need a quiet bus ride back to their hotel or even a good night’s sleep to know the implications of Monday night’s loss to the Clippers.
The Nuggets should’ve won Game 3, and they knew it almost immediately.
“We missed a huge opportunity tonight,” said Jamal Murray, who kicked himself over his 12 missed shots, including seven in the second half. “I think that’s why it’s worse because it was nothing they did. They didn’t do anything to take us out of our game. We just missed shots, turned the ball over, couple defensive lapses and that was the game. We were up the whole game, had them on their heels. Like I said, it was self-inflicted. Those are the tough ones to go back to the hotel with.”
The Nuggets were up 97-90 with 8:29 left in the fourth quarter. From there, Denver’s offense froze like a tomato plant in a September snowstorm.
Paul George and Lou Williams canned back-to-back 3-pointers, and the turnovers started mounting. Before the Nuggets could re-group, Kawhi Leonard was hitting jumpers, snatching rebounds, stuffing dunks and making it known, in no uncertain terms, that he was the most impactful player on the court. In a five-minute span, the Clippers reeled off a 17-6 run that all but ended the game.
The worst part? Nikola Jokic (32 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists) didn’t even expect to play in Game 3. And yet the Nuggets couldn’t capitalize on an unbelievable night that nearly never happened.
“I didn’t believe that much that I’m gonna play, but it was really good the improvement that I felt in the last 24 hours,” Jokic said of the right wrist sprain which left him a game-time decision.
On a bum wrist, Jokic came up two assists shy of his fifth playoff triple-double. And it was all for naught.
Jokic needed more help than he got. In the fourth quarter, Denver’s non-Jokic shooters were 5-for-18 from the field. That was on Jerami Grant (2-for-6), Michael Porter Jr. (2-for-6), Gary Harris (0-for-1) and Murray (1-for-5).
“If I did a little more than that we’d win that game,” Murray said.
Added Porter: “It definitely slipped away from us in that fourth quarter, and we definitely felt like we had this one.”
The Clippers can thank a 29-19 fourth-quarter advantage for their 2-1 series lead.
But it wasn’t only the fourth quarter where the Nuggets broke down. Denver built a 55-43 lead with just four minutes left in the first half before the Clippers closed on a 14-4 run. Turnovers fueled their break and snatched whatever momentum the Nuggets would’ve carried into halftime.
“We lost tonight,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We should’ve won the game. That’s how I feel. … We were leading for most of this game. Game 2 was a confidence builder because we played our brand of basketball. That is who we are. If you want to just put in a capsule: ‘Who is Denver Nuggets basketball?’ Game 2 embodies that. Defense, rebounding, physicality, attacking, and tonight we didn’t have that because our defense wasn’t where it needs to be.”
Malone’s message has been consistent over the last two months in Orlando. If they defend, they can win. And if they don’t, it’s really up to chance if they can outscore the Clippers.
But Malone’s gears will grind all the way until Wednesday’s Game 4 because it shouldn’t have been up to chance. This was a game they shouldn’t have dropped.
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