Denver’s Nikola Jokic had game highs of 34 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists Sunday, powering the Nuggets over the Los Angeles Clippers 111-98 to level their NBA playoff series.
The Nuggets, who also had 21 points from Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, recovered from a 19-point deficit in the third quarter to match the Clippers at 3-3 in the Western Conference semi-final, setting up a winner-take-all game seven on Tuesday.
“We don’t have pressure,” Jokic said. “All the pressure is on them. We have to play at a high level and give our best.
“To us it’s just another game seven. We’re going to go out there and play.”
It’s the fourth consecutive playoff series over two seasons in which the Nuggets have faced a seventh game. They are 5-0 in elimination games and have rallied from 16-point or worse deficits in the past three such games.
“The effort was amazing,” Jokic said. “We were down 16 last time, down 16 to Utah – we don’t want it but maybe we like it. We’re good at it.
“The whole team played well. It was an amazing game for us.”
The 25-year-old 7-foot (2.13m) Serbian center hit 13-of-22 shots, 4-of-6 from 3-point range and 4-of-5 from the free throw line.
“I think it’s defense, “Jokic said. “When we get a couple stops, we are flying and the ball is moving. When we start running the offense, we’re a really good team.”
The Clippers, who have squandered a 3-1 series edge, have never reached a conference final in their 50-year history. They missed 10 shots in a row in the third period during a 17-0 Nuggets run.
“They came down and scored or got fouled in the third quarter and we couldn’t buy a basket,” Clippers star Kawhi Leonard said.
“We’ve just got to leave it all out on the floor, communicate and play hard on the defensive end.”
Paul George scored 33 points and Leonard, last year’s NBA Finals Most Valuable Player for Toronto, added 25 to lead the Clippers, who were outscored 64-35 in the second half.
“It was beautiful playing,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “Then we stopped moving the ball, stopped playing. That’s what let them get back in the game.
“We clearly have the right formula. We just lost it. We lost our pace.”
The Nuggets became the first team since the 1970 Los Angeles Lakers to force multiple game sevens in the same playoff run.
No team has ever recovered from a 3-1 deficit twice in the same playoff run but the Nuggets could be the first.
“I’m running out of superlatives to say about our team. I love our team. I love our toughness,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
“We were down 16 at half. We weren’t down on ourselves. We knew what we were going to have to go through. The question was how are we going to get out of it.
“One of the best third quarters I can ever remember in my five years.”
- ‘Lot of work to do’ -
Malone has no idea what gives his team the ability to climb out of deep deficits.
“I think it’s an inner belief, a confidence. We believe we have what it takes to win a championship,” said Malone.
“We have a tremendous belief and confidence in who we are, how we play and what our talent level is. We’re enjoying this. We’re embracing this.
“But we have a lot of work to do.”
Tuesday will also see Miami and Boston meet in the Eastern Conference final opener. All games are being played without spectators in a coronavirus quarantine bubble at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
Torrey Craig’s 3-pointer a minute into the fourth quarter gave the Nuggets an 82-79 lead, their first edge since 8-7 in the first quarter.
Jokic scored 11 points, including three 3-pointers, in a decisive 21-9 Denver run to give the Nuggets a 109-93 lead.
The Clippers closed the second quarter with a 16-2 run for a 63-47 half-time lead, but Jokic and Murray sparked a 17-0 run and seized command in the fouth quarter.
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