LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — First came Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Now it’s Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. Those players might be the future of the NBA. The Los Angeles Clippers believe their time is now.
That’s been true since the moment they signed Kawhi Leonard, who is on the best roll of his playoff career as the Clippers open the Western Conference semifinals Thursday night against the Denver Nuggets.
Leonard has scored at least 30 points in a playoff career-high five straight games — and the two-time NBA Finals MVP finished with 29 in the only game he didn’t in the first round against Dallas. Teammate Landry Shamet said he had to stop himself from laughing in the fourth quarter of Game 6, when Leonard scored eight straight Clippers points.
“That guy is a problem. We all know that,” Shamet said. “So at the end of games, he kind of goes to that next level. It’s not anything that really comes surprising. It’s what he does, what he’s expected to do and we need him to do that.”
The second-seeded Clippers won the final two games of that series, overcoming Doncic’s brilliant play in his first postseason. Porzingis missed the final three games with torn cartilage in his right knee, but the Nuggets have both their young stars ready to go.
Murray matched an NBA record with two 50-point games in one series in the first round, part of a 142-point run from Games 4-6. And when he was finally slowed in Game 7, Jokic responded with 30 points, 14 rebounds and the tiebreaking basket with 27 seconds left in an 80-78 victory over Utah.
That made Denver the 12th team to overcome a 3-1 deficit to win a series but left the No. 3 seed with just one day to recover.
“It’s draining to go through a seven-game series with anybody, especially one like we had that was mentally and physically draining trying to come back from 3-1,” Denver’s Torrey Craig said. “Then you finally come back and you advance and then you play in 48 hours. So it’s going to be a challenge.”
Especially against a Clippers team that has one of the deepest and most talented lineups in the league. They won two of the three meetings in the regular season, including a 29-point romp in February.
“Our biggest challenge I think is how do we go from an emotional high last night and get ramped up to play a Game 1 tomorrow night without being a letdown,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Because if there’s a letdown, we’ve seen what L.A. can do to teams.”
Other things to know about the series:
Clippers coach Doc Rivers said Patrick Beverley will play in the series, possibly as soon as the opener. The starting guard missed the final five games of the first round with a strained left calf.
“I’m pretty sure tomorrow but I can’t guarantee that,” Rivers said. “But he looks pretty good.”
CENTER OF ATTENTION
With the Clippers having a number of wing defenders to throw at Murray, the Nuggets might need Jokic to have a few more of the nights he had in Game 7.
“I think every series Nikola Jokic has an advantage. He’s a great player,” Malone said. “He’s a first-team All-NBA center, the best center in the NBA. So, regardless of who we play, I think Nikola’s always got an advantage because of who he is and how talented he is.”
Paul George had a 35-point outing in Game 5 but the rest of the series was a struggle for the Clippers star. He was 10 for 47 in Games 2-4 and didn’t score more than 15 points in four of the final five games.
Marcus Morris was fined $35,000 for his flagrant foul against Doncic in Game 6. The penalty was announced Wednesday, on the forward’s birthday.
PASSING ON PORTER
When Denver took Michael Porter Jr. with the No. 14 pick in the 2018 draft, it came after the Clippers passed on him twice at Nos. 12 and 13. They swapped the first one with Charlotte to acquire the rights to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the player they wanted, and took Jerome Robinson at 13. Porter was considered one of the top players in the draft but there were concerns about his back. He’s overcome that to become a key contributor for the Nuggets in the bubble.
“When he was on the board it was a brutal pass because everyone in the room knew his talent,” Rivers said. “But it was more the injury concern. That was the only other concern.”
By BRIAN MAHONEY AP Basketball Writer
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