After letting Friday’s Game 5 slip away, the second-seeded LA Clippers get a second chance to clinch the franchise’s first Western Conference Finals appearance. But the third-seeded Denver Nuggets have become adept at avoiding elimination.
Those factors collide on Sunday at 6pm, live on Sky Sports Arena, when the Clippers and Nuggets meet for Game 6 of their Western Conference semi-final series, with LA leading 3-2.
“We have been here before,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said following his team’s 111-105 victory in Game 5. “Our guys believe. We are tough. Everybody continues to count us out. That’s the way we like it, and we live to die another day.”
On Friday night, the Nuggets overcame a 15-point second-half deficit to win. They are now 5-1 in elimination games over the past two seasons, including clawing back from a 3-1 deficit to win their first-round series against Utah in seven games.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers said his team’s defensive discipline was not as sharp down the stretch of Game 5, and that they missed some wide-open shots.
Malone, meanwhile, called his team’s second-half defense “as good as I have seen”.
Additionally, veteran forward Paul Millsap scored 14 of his 17 points in the third quarter – and got in a verbal spat with Marcus Morris Sr just before half-time that Malone believes sparked his team after the break.
Stars Nikola Jokic (22 points, 14 rebounds, five assists) and Jamal Murray (26 points, eight rebounds, seven assists) then hit timely shots down the stretch.
And rookie Michael Porter Jr, who publicly expressed his displeasure with his role in Game 4, hit a big three-pointer to put Denver up by five with 1:11 to play and sank four free throws in the final seconds to help seal the win.
“We gave them a little bit of life, and they played desperation ball,” said Clippers star Paul George, who is averaging 21.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game in this series. “They didn’t have a choice. Credit them for not wanting to go home. They played great down the stretch.”
The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard finished Game 5 with 36 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals, and remains one of the NBA’s top scorers in these playoffs. When Leonard got a breather in the second half, Rivers said “the game changed”.
“We just didn’t score in that stretch,” Rivers said. “I thought that was a pivotal moment.”
The Clippers’ bench, normally one of the league’s best, struggled in Game 5. Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell totalled six points and three rebounds, while three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams scored four points on 2-of-10 shooting (0 of 5 from three-point range).
The Nuggets felt like they gave Game 3 of this series away, after the Clippers rallied from seven points down in the fourth quarter to win. Rivers quipped that “maybe we’ve returned the favour” in Game 5.
Now, both teams are in the same situation entering Game 6. The Clippers are trying to clinch their franchise’s first Conference Finals appearance. The Nuggets are trying to stay alive.
“We are in the driver’s seat,” George said. “We had them where we wanted them. Again, we should have put them away. They came back. They won the game. It comes down to Game 6.”
Watch LA Clippers @ Denver Nuggets Game 6 live on Sky Sports Arena on Sunday at 6pm