By Arnie Leshin
Oh those Denver Nuggets. From one come-from-behind surprise to another, and now the 3rd-seeded Nuggets have knotted the Western Conference finals at 3 games each via Sunday afternoon‘s convincing 111-98 win over the stunned 2nd-seeded Los Angeles Clippers at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena VIsta, Fla.
And meanwhile, the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers ousted the 4th-seeded Houston Rockets in five games and now await the winner of this contest in the conference finals. And if they were expecting an all-city clash, they might see Denver, which fell behind 3-1 versus the Utah Jazz in the conference semifinal and won three-straight to get this far. Now let’s see if it can do it again after also trailing 3-1 to the Clippers.
If it was unexpected, it didn’t register with the Nuggets.
“We have been counted out before,” said Denver’s Jamal Murray, “but now we’ve proven we can play with anyone, so we don’t listen to what they say. Now if we can win game seven, conference finals here we come.”
That shows confidence from the team’s leading scorer who tallied back-to-back 50-point games versus 4th-seeded Utah. This time, he settled for 21 points, five rebounds and the same number of assists, and the leader this time was the versatile NIkola Jokic, who had the team highs of 34 points,14 rebounds and seven assists. It was Jokic who was the main man in the fourth quarter surge of the Nuggets, depositing 14 points, taking down six boards, and handing out five assists.
Denver also picked up 13 points and seven rebounds from Michael Porter, Jr., and Gary Harris added 16 points while playing the most minutes, 42. Monte Morris also brought down 14 rebounds and was good for 10 points.
The Nuggets had the rebounding edge, 41-37, came away with 10 steals, dished out 26 assists, and made had the range from the 3 by making 12-of-25. Jokic was good for 4-of-6 3s and shot 13-for-22 from the floor.
Los Angeles looked like it was on the way to the conference finals when it commanded a 3-1 lead in this series, but like the Jazz, it was was caught by Denver. In this game, the Clippers surrendered huge leads, and in the final quarter the Nuggets surged past them.
Paul George led the first half for Los Angeles with 19 of his team-high 33 points, and Kawhi Leonard contributed 16 of his 25 points in that span, and his five assists were the team-best. Leonard played 41 minutes. Lou Williams scored 14 points, Michvical Green tallied 11, and Zubek scrubbed the boards for a dozen rebounds.
The Clippers made 9-of-27 3s, had 10 steals, and George shot 9-for-21 from the floor and tossed in 4-of-9 3-pointers. But their first half surge gave in to Denver’s second half comeback.
In the Eastern Conference finals, it’s the 3rd-seeded Boston Celtics against the 5th-seeded Miami Heat, and game one will be played Tuesday after Miami turned back the overall No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks in six games and Boston eliminated the defending champion Toronto Raptors in seven games.