Clippers’ defense locks in early in Game 4 win over Nuggets

Denver Nuggets' Jerami Grant (9) is defended by Los Angeles Clippers' Lou Williams (23) during the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)Denver Nuggets' Jerami Grant (9) is defended by Los Angeles Clippers' Lou Williams (23) during the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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Denver Nuggets’ Jerami Grant is defended by Clippers’ Lou Williams during the first half of Game 4 on Wednesday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.  (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Michael Porter Jr. slid past JaMychal Green to hit a banker over Paul George’s vertical arms to end the first quarter, two hard-earned points from an offensive player who was simply better than the Clippers’ coverage.» data-reactid=»23″>Michael Porter Jr. slid past JaMychal Green to hit a banker over Paul George’s vertical arms to end the first quarter, two hard-earned points from an offensive player who was simply better than the Clippers’ coverage.

It was also a rarity.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="In the first quarter of the Clippers’ 96-85 win Wednesday, they put the clamps on the Nuggets, with Porter’s basket and four made shots from Nikola Jokic the only field goals for Denver in the first dozen minutes.» data-reactid=»25″>In the first quarter of the Clippers’ 96-85 win Wednesday, they put the clamps on the Nuggets, with Porter’s basket and four made shots from Nikola Jokic the only field goals for Denver in the first dozen minutes.

“It was just great intensity. They really stuck to the game plan. We didn’t do a lot of individual thinking,” coach Doc Rivers said after the win. “But I just thought we were competitive. We competed. We played hard. We made mistakes, but we covered them up because we were playing hard. And more important than playing hard, I thought we were competitive.”

The effort reversed a trend from the series, with the Denver offense opening games by torching the nets before the Clippers would lock in.

The 12 points Wednesday was the worst offensive quarter of the playoffs for the Nuggets, with the team making only five of 17 from the floor, with Jokic hitting four of them. In the first three games of the series, Denver hit 62.3% of its shots from the field, averaging 35.3 points.

“I mean, listen, I just think it’s us,” Rivers said before Game 4. “Give Denver credit. They’re an excellent offensive team, but we have proven through the game when we play right defensively, make the right rotations we’re pretty good — so just gotta do that from the start.”

The Clippers’ first-quarter defense Wednesday was aided by Denver’s shot-making woes, but even with Denver missing on some looks, the Clippers were playing with a different level of intensity from the tip.

Ivica Zubac, who has had the hardest job in the series trying to stop Jokic, set the tone with a stop on the right block. Even when Jokic spun Zubac out of his sneakers a few plays later, the Clippers didn’t relent.

Before George got saddled with foul trouble, his length bothered Jamal Murray and limited the high-scoring Denver guard to two shot attempts, both of which he missed.

“It’s just keeping him in front, using my length to bother him … just pressure him,” George said.

While Patrick Beverley and Kawhi Leonard earned all-defensive second team spots this week, Rivers said people shouldn’t sleep on George’s defense either.

“I think it gets lost sometimes with PG because he is such a great shooter,” Rivers said before the game. “It just seems like the better the shooter you are, the more [people] forget about how good you are defensively. For whatever reason, I think that’s true. But he has been sensational. You can always tell where he’s at like healthwise and mentally by the way he’s playing defense.”

The same generally holds true for the Clippers, and in the first quarter, they looked pretty well.

It wasn’t as sudden as the Clippers’ defensive surges in Game 3, when the team sort of floated in and out. The Clippers’ performance in that game left Denver feeling confident that its offense would rebound, that some good looks that the team had would fall.

But still, Denver coach Michael Malone said the Clippers could change things with their defense.

“Those two crucial runs that they had [in Game 3] were huge difference-makers in the win,” he said before Game 4. “They got into us and turned us over and generated easy offense for them. So yes, we did miss open looks, things that we can control.

“But their defense is real.”