There was no way they could have predicted such a moment, for seeing what seemed to be impossible become real, and so what took place after Tuesday’s final buzzer was wholly improvised by a team that has survived its share of comebacks, but never from situations seemingly this dire.
The Clippers looked for teammates to hug, for the scoreboard to double-check that the final score of 87-85 was real, for friends and family in the stands to exchange quizzical glances.
When Amir Coffey ran into the tunnel toward his locker room, he stopped to hug point guard Reggie Jackson, who by that point had given his Nikes, his glasses and his headband to fans. Jackson walked to the locker room in his socks, the franchise’s fourth-largest comeback behind him, the season’s second half ahead.
After mustering only 28 points in the first half against Denver and trailing by 25 while being outrebounded by 20 in the third quarter, the Clippers went small to win big and create a victory that combined the hallmarks of their season’s first half — at-times brutal offense, stable defense and a grit that has remained constant when lineups and circumstances continually change.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic missed a running three-pointer in the final seconds to close one of the most improbable second halves of the season, considering what took place during the first.
The Clippers looked listless. Then they turned relentless.
They couldn’t score a basket, making one of their first 14 three-pointers. Then they made nine of their last 20.
It looked as though they had crossed the midway point of their schedule by delivering their season’s low-water mark. Instead they hope it will become a springboard for their second half.
“We really needed that,” coach Tyronn Lue said.
Said Denver coach Michael Malone: “Losses like this keep me awake for weeks.”
Jackson, after missing nine of his first 10 shots, made four consecutive shots in the fourth quarter to finish with 13 points, including a dunk over Jokic, the 7-foot the reigning most valuable player, that Clippers forward Nicolas Batum said ignited the team.
“The game was ugly for me early,” Jackson said. “… Moments like these just helps you keep confidence.”
One game after playing what Lue called their best offense in recent memory, a Clippers squad whose offense ranked 27th this season — and is averaging nearly 10 fewer points per game than last season — produced its most anemic stretch yet in the 28-point half, the fewest in a first half by any team since the Clippers scored 27 during a loss to Dallas in December 2020.
The Clippers made 12 of 43 shots in those opening 24 minutes while being outrebounded by 16 to continue the downward trends that loomed over the first 41 games.
It was only June when the Clippers authored a 25-point comeback to beat Utah and advance to their first conference final — but that game featured a healthy Paul George and Luke Kennard, both of whom are sidelined.
Jackson had been a surprise source of so much postseason offense. But this season his efficiency has ebbed and flowed. In his previous six games since returning from the NBA’s health and safety protocols, Jackson had made 37% of his three-pointers, yet had committed more turnovers (2.8 per game) than assists (2.3). And it was only Sunday that Lue had not played him the final 14 minutes of a win against Atlanta after a slew of errors.
“You just need one shot to get going,” Batum said of Jackson. “One shot and then, boom.”
The Clippers’ slow start made keeping pace with Jokic an uphill challenge from the very start. Even when Jokic rested for seven minutes during the first half, the Clippers could not cut into Denver’s four-point lead. Quick shots early in the shot clock crippled their half.
“We’re not a good team that way,” Batum said. “We got to be honest, we can’t play like that.”
The spark was lit by going small. In just six third-quarter minutes a lineup of Batum, Marcus Morris, Terance Mann, Coffey and Eric Bledsoe outscored Denver by 14. Those quick shots were replaced by ball movement and spacing, with 15 assists against only five turnovers in the second half.
“Our defense saved us tonight,” Batum said. “We start making shots and move the ball and have more fun, and start winning. … We could easily give up. Now, we kept fighting.”
Coffey followed his 21-point game against Atlanta with 18, seven assists and five rebounds and played the entire second half, completing his transformation from out of the rotation in December to indispensable one month later. Bledsoe scored only 11 points but the Clippers (21-21) outscored Denver by 28 points in his 26 minutes.
“That is ridiculous,” Jackson said, peering at a boxscore. “That is unreal.”
Coffey’s three-pointer with two minutes to play pushed the Clippers ahead 83-81, and after a stop, Jackson dribbled upcourt as fans began to stand around the court. When he reached the top of the three-point arc, he whipped a pass to Batum, whose three-pointer increased the lead to five with 1:47 to play, forcing a Denver timeout.
Jokic, who scored 21 points with 13 rebounds, continually assisted Aaron Gordon, whose 30 points led all scorers, for baskets in the final minutes to keep the Nuggets within a shot, but the Clippers’ offense — the same that sputtered early —continually generated answers, scoring 32 points in the final 12 minutes.