By Arnie Leshin
Sorry Los Angeles, but the Denver Nuggets are soaring, not only against your Clippers, but also against the Utah Jazz in an unprecedented back-to-back comebacks from 3-1 Western Conference deficits.
And so, while LA will not see the match-up it hoped for, the Clippers versus the Lakers, it’s the 3rd-seeded Nuggets in the conference final for the first time since 2009 when they lost in six games to these Lakers. Again they will be in the role of underdogs, but it doesn’t matter after they celebrated head coach Michael Malone’s 49th birthday Tuesday nightby rolling past the 2nd-seeded Clippers, who are now 0-8 in conference semis, 104-89.
No home courts as has been the case in the restarted shortened National Basketball Association being played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and that’s where the top-seeded Lakers will be out to claim their first NBA championship since 2009 and dedicate it to the late Kobe Bryant, the mainstay of the ’09 team.
But there’s two tough roads to travel first. Overlook Denver as Utah did in the conference quarterfinals and the Clippers in the semis, and the Lakers might also have to exit and not gain the finals against the Eastern Conference winner of the Miami Heat-Boston Celtics semis best-of-7 series.
“What can I tell you,” said Chris Paul of the Oklahoma City Thunder in regard to another fallout by the Clippers, “they choked against Houston in 2015 and again in 2009. As for Denver, we lost to Utah in the conference quarters and it came from down 3-1 to win that one and did the same against the Clippers.”
In the 47 years that the Nuggets have been in business, they are still searching for their first NBA title. In this latest stunner, they were tied 24-all after one quarter, trailed 56-54 at halftime, but took a 82-74 lead after three quarters and maintained it until the final buzzer. Then they stormed the court as Coach Malone thanked them for the marvelous birthday present.
“We love the underdog role,” said Denver’s leading scorer Jamal Murray, who turned in a game-high 40 points after back-to-back 50-point games versus Utah. “And now we get tested again, and we are excited to get this far. Hopefully, we are finally getting respect, and Nikola (Jokic) has to be the best big man in the league.”
This time, Murray added four rebounds and the same number of assists. The other half of the one-
two punch, versatile 7-foot Jokic, came away with a triple-double, 16 points, 12 boards and six assists. As usual, he was equally adept inside and outside, as well as a menace on the
Said Clippers head coach Doc Rivers: “They outscored us 50-33 in the second half and their defense held my best players (Kawhi) Leonard and (Paul) George to 4-of-18 shooting during that span, and we’re not going to win with those two scoring 30 points between them.”
The Nuggets have now survived six eliminations in this postseason, their most since the 1994 playoffs. Same old Clippers, a 2nd round dynasty, who might have been looking ahead to lining up against the city-rival Lakers, and now they can only again watch them on the tubes. This is the same team with arguably the most talented roster in the league, now they have to live with being ousted again.
As for Miami and Boston in the East, it was a remarkable shot block by the Heat’s Bam Adebaye on a drive to the basket and a dunk attempt from the Celtics’ Jason Tatum in the final seconds that protected the 117-114 lead, while a basket by Tatum while being fouled could have tied the score and forced an overtime in the conference’s game one final.
The 5th-seeded Heat also picked up 18 points, eight rebounds and a team-high 11 assists from Adebaye, who timed the block perfectly and let his left hand do the rest. Jimmy Butler, the Miami spark in crucial moments, added 20 points, four boards and six assists, while Willy Herro scored a dozen points, grabbed 11 rebounds and dished out nine assists, and Lance Crowder contributed 22 points that included 5-of-9 from the 3.
Miami, which eliminated the No.1 overall seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the conferences semifinals, had the rebounding edge, 41-37, shot 40-for-85 from the floor, made 21-of-28 free throws, and was 16-for-36 from the 3.
For the 3rd-seeded Celtics, it was Tatum with a game-high 30 points to go with 14 rebounds and six assists. Marcus Smart added 26 points, Kemba Walker 19, and Jaylen Brown 17. The team was 39-for-88 from the field and converted 21-of-23 foul shots. Boston advanced by eliminating the defending champion Toronto Raptors in seven tight games.
It was 26-18 Celts after one quarter, but 55-49 Heat at the intermission. Boston was in front again 77-71 after three quarters, but the game was so close, it forced overtime after a 106-106 deadlock at the end of regulation, but in the OT, Miami closed with a 11-8 advantage to wrap this one up. The teams play again Thursday night.