LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Jamal Murray sat down in his Jesus Shuttlesworth shorts, with a paper cup in hand and the Los Angeles Clippers in his pocket. Murray did not eliminate the favored Clippers by himself, but it sure felt that way. The Nuggets star is not a freak athlete. But he is a 6-foot-4 true point guard who can make shots from anywhere on the floor—and, as we have discovered in these playoffs, at any moment of the season.
Murray scored 40 points on 26 shots in Game 7. Clippers stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined for 24 points on 38 shots. These are not advanced stats, but they are how-you-advance stats.
The Nuggets came back from down 3–1 for the second straight series to make the Western Conference finals. They won Game 7, 104–89. The Clippers lost in the second round again. People will say they Clippers are failures (let’s go with “disappointment”) or mercenaries (who isn’t?), but they can still represent Los Angeles by doing what Los Angeles residents do: Watch the Lakers in the playoffs.
The difference in this series?
Murray: “A lot of times it’s about trust. Coach (Michael Malone) has given us a lot more trust to run the offense. As long as we play defense, we can do whatever we want on offense. It’s all about trust.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers: “We start missing shots and you can see us trusting less and less and less.”
Clippers guard Lou Williams: “A lot of the issues that we ran into, talent bailed us out. Chemistry didn’t.”
Murray: “It’s fun to silence everyone talking negative about us.”
Paul George: (Checks Damian Lillard’s Twitter feed, weeps.)
For Murray, this was not a hot night or a hot series; it is how he plays. Murray played at least as well in the epic seven-gamer against the Jazz in the first round. He is a star, a foundational player, the kind every team seeks. The Clippers put George, one of the great wing defenders in the league, on Murray, and he kept hitting shots. The Clippers then started doubling Murray off every ball screen, to force the ball out of his hands; it worked, in the sense that they got the ball out of his hands, but there is a risk to doing that. Other players were open, and the Nuggets took advantage.
The Clippers appeared to have the most talented team in the league, they were title favorites, and they lost in the second round. Also, they are the Clippers. Together, this makes them an easy punchline. George lost early again. Rivers lost in the second round again. All true. They will hear it. They have no choice.
But their failure is not as simple as people will make it out to be. Look, if there was one thing everybody could agree on with the Clippers, it’s that Leonard is a clutch superstar. This is the guy who led two franchises to championships, who won Finals MVP against LeBron James’s Heat and the dynasty Warriors. As Rivers said Monday: There is never a guarantee somebody will play well, but with Kawhi, you know the moment will not be too big for him.
Well, with his season on the line, Kawhi Leonard shot 6-for 22, scored 14 points and was minus-21—the worst mark of anybody on the floor.
Did Leonard become a choker now as soon as he put on Clippers gear? Of course not.
The Clippers were never right. They never peaked. Before the pandemic, there was not much urgency. After the pandemic, there was chaos. Williams left the bubble for a funeral, which became a story when he got caught getting chicken wings at a strip club. Paul George admitted the bubble was wearing him down mentally (he isn’t alone there) and it took him a while to play like the star he is.
“Our guys missed a lot of the bubble,” Rivers said “(Montrezl Harrell) missed 30 days, Lou 14, Pat (Beverley) 16. Some of that came back and haunted us.”
To understand how wild this series was—and, really, how wild the bubble playoffs are—consider this: Murray said when the Nuggets trailed the series 3–1, he still felt they had the better team. Rivers said when the Clippers led 3–1, he knew his team wasn’t right.
“I was never comfortable,” Rivers said. “I just wasn’t. I just knew, conditioning-wise we had guys that just couldn’t play minutes, and that’s hard. Two and three times a night, we start getting it going and guys had to come out. So no, I was never comfortable. I can tell you that up front.”
In Game 7, Rivers had to take guys out because they were tired. As he said, “That’s not typical for Game 7.” But they asked out. What could he do?
Yes, every team had to deal with the bubble, and the Nuggets lost guard Will Barton to an injured knee. But the Clippers only signed Leonard and traded for George last summer. They had no foundation.
We often overstate our ability to read athletes’ minds, but it’s easier in basketball than in most sports. You could see it in the second half of this game: The Clippers didn’t really believe in the way a team needs to believe to win a Game 7. Everything was a little off. JaMychal Green drove in for a monster dunk, the kind that usually brings a crowd to its feet. But there was no crowd. He missed. George fetched the long rebound but then he passed into the stands. Williams drove in for a layup. He looked like he was bracing for a taller player to fly in and block it. Nobody did. The shot bounced around the rim and away. Then Murray hit a three-pointer.
Beverley turned around when a fast break didn’t develop and passed to George, who fired up an open three-pointer that rimmed out.
They looked like they had installed their offense that morning. Some of that was probably just fatigue. Some was that they just didn’t have the time together that they needed. It is weird to say that the more experienced team won this series, but that was how it looked. Murray is only 23, but he has been training for this his whole life, and he has been playing with fellow star Nikola Jokic for four seasons. When they barely missed the playoffs at the end of the 2018 season, Leonard was a San Antonio Spur. George had completed his first season with Oklahoma City.
With more than a minute left, Nuggets president Tim Connelly left his seat to head toward his team’s locker room. “Tim!” somebody called from behind. It was Clippers president Lawrence Frank, stopping Connelly to congratulate him. It was a nice gesture. Frank put together a great roster. Connelly put together a great team.