The Denver Nuggets gave the Los Angeles Clippers all they could handle in Game 3, but after a back-and-forth fourth quarter, this series is around where we expected after three games. The Clippers lead the Nuggets 2-1 following a 113-107 victory Monday behind their two superstars. Paul George carried the offensive load with 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting, but it was Kawhi Leonard who sealed the deal defensively with a crucial block of Jamal Murray with his middle finger.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, wasted a dominant outing from Nikola Jokic, as their All-Star center finished the game with 32 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. Murray's inability to provide secondary scoring was the difference, as he went 5-of-17 from the field with Patrick Beverley hounding him all series. The pressure is now on the Nuggets. If they can't respond in Game 4, they could be done as soon as Game 5.
The Nuggets need Dr. Jekyll, not Mr. Hyde
Jamal Murray has always run hot and cold, but this postseason has been ridiculous. He has four games between 36-50 points, but four games under 15. Game 3 against the Clippers was yet another clunker. He shot 5-of-17 from the field, bringing him down to 37.7 percent shooting against the Clippers. Patrick Beverley is at least somewhat responsible. He has played lockdown defense on Murray for much of the series. There's also the thigh injury he appeared to aggravate last round.
But after Denver's first-round series against Utah, it appeared as if Murray had outgrown his long-standing streakiness. He looked like a superstar when the Nuggets needed him most. Well, they need him again now, and he disappeared on Monday. If that happens again on Wednesday, this series is over.
Welcome back, Playoff P
Paul George's playoff history has been picked apart ad nauseam, especially since his slow start against the Dallas Mavericks. But across his past five games? George is averaging 24.6 points on 49.4 percent shooting from the field and 43.6 percent from behind the arc. He scored 32 points on Monday in a game in which his best teammates struggled. While Kawhi Leonard made plenty of big plays, he finished with only 23 points on 1-of-6 shooting from behind the arc. Lou Williams was decent at 4-of-11 from the field, but those are the two primary shot-creators for the Clippers. When they're off, the whole team should be off.
They weren't because Paul George is finally starting to look like Paul George again. That has been true on both ends of the floor. His help defense was crucial in slowing down Murray and offering even token resistance to Nikola Jokic, who made mincemeat of the Clippers big men. George's first four playoff games were disastrous, but since then he's been every bit the sidekick Kawhi has needed to make the Clippers champions.
How easily can the switch be flipped?
The Clippers are, on balance, where they should be. They're leading an inferior opponent through three games in a second-round series. But what happened in the first half of this series, and what happened against Dallas in the first round, should be concerning to the Clippers. Their effort isn't nearly consistent enough. Clippers supporters would argue that they are so talented that they can easily flip the switch and dominate anyone, but it took them most of the second half to right the ship against Denver.
Historically speaking, certain contenders have been able to get away with coasting until maximum effort is absolutely necessary. But those teams, like the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat of the past decade, had championship experience and years of chemistry to fall back on. When effort is all that's missing, course-correction is fairly simple.
But effort isn't all that's missing with the Clippers. They lack the muscle memory that made the best versions of later-stage Celtics or LeBron James-teams special. Even when they're playing at full speed, not knowing instinctually what teammates are going to do can lead to stalled offense and easy buckets on the other end. The Clippers aren't there yet. Their starting lineup played less than 150 minutes together during the regular season. LeBron James and Anthony Davis played 1,456 minutes together during the regular season. Leonard and George were below 900.
This isn't a cookie-cutter roster. George and Leonard aren't inherently complementary players. They have a number of other ball-handlers still adjusting to secondary roles. They've now had to play two somewhat unique offensive opponents, throwing schematic consistency on defense aside. The Clippers can't just assume that their talent will overwhelm the field. They can't afford to jog through quarters and games, because while the Nuggets might not be good enough to capitalize on it, the Lakers, Rockets and whoever comes out of the Eastern Conference certainly are.