LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. | Kawhi Leonard has the Los Angeles Clippers a win away from the franchise’s first-ever trip to the Western Conference finals.
They’re not celebrating anything just yet.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do still,” Leonard said. “We’re still fighting.”
Leonard finished an assist shy of his first playoff triple-double and the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Denver Nuggets 96-85 in Game 4 on Wednesday night to take a 3-1 lead in the series.
Leonard filled up the stat sheet with 30 points, 11 rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots. He has scored 30 or more points six times during this postseason.
Reserve Montrezl Harrell added 15 points to help the Clippers, who can close out the Nuggets on Friday night.
The mood in the locker room on the precipice of such a momentous moment was subdued.
“Zero reaction,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We haven’t done anything yet.”
After building an 18-point lead in the second quarter, Los Angeles saw Denver storm back and tie it at 48 early in the third. The Clippers responded with a 21-5 run to gain some separation and then weathered a late run from Denver.
“Our continuity is growing,” said Paul George, who scored 10 points in nearly 27 minutes as he dealt with foul trouble. “This team is getting more and more comfortable together.
Nikola Jokic had 26 points and 11 boards for a Nuggets team that finds itself in an all-too-familiar situation. They were down in their first-round series against Utah before becoming the 12th team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 deficit.
“This is a different opponent, obviously. A very talented, deep team,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But I think we do have a confidence in being a resilient group and being a team that when everyone else has written us off, we have found a way.”
Los Angeles relied on stellar defense, holding Denver to 39.7% shooting and forcing three shot-clock violations. The Nuggets never led in the game.
One of the leaders of the defensive charge was George, who helped hold Jamal Murray to 6-of-15 shooting and 18 points.
“We knew that when we were getting him,” Rivers said of George’s defensive tenacity. “It gets lost at times, with P.G., because he’s such a great shooter. The better shooter you are the more people forget how good you are defensively.”
There was a very minor dust-up midway through the fourth quarter when Jokic fell to the floor after feeling he was fouled. As he got up, he grabbed at Patrick Beverley, who was taking the ball up the floor. Beverley took a step toward Jokic before heading toward the bench.
It was Beverley who said after Game 3 that Jokic makes it hard on officials with “a lot of flailing.”
Clippers: Reserve G Lou Williams finished with 12. … The Clippers had a 38-22 margin in points in the paint.
Nuggets: Murray finished with seven assists and Jokic six. … Denver was 9 of 27 from 3-point range.
Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. scored 13 of his 15 points in the second quarter. He didn’t have a basket after halftime.
Asked what the Clippers did differently in the second half, Porter said: “I just didn’t touch the ball. They didn’t do anything differently.”
Rivers tried to find an apt comparison for Jokic, a center who likes to consider himself a point guard.
“I don’t know if there is a comparison. He has a little bit of everybody,” Rivers said. “He has all the footwork and the moves of an (Hakeem) Olajuwon, the lanky and … goofy intelligence of Kevin McHale. Shoot, man, he’s just good. He’s the best passing big that I’ve seen I think, ever.
“He’s very good and he’s very frustrating to watch on film.”
REST OR TRAVEL?
Rivers sees no travel in these series inside the bubble as a positive. But he pointed out there’s also less rest with contests every other day, which may negate the positives.
“My guess, probably it evens all out,” Rivers said. “If you gave a player a travel day and two days, he would probably take that over (playing) every other day.”