After a 23-point loss in Game 1, Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone said his team had a completely new look and energy Saturday as it bounced back to win Game 2 110-101 and even its playoff series with the LA Clippers.
"I thought tonight we were a noticeably different team than we were in Game 1," Malone said. "Our defense, our activity and the fact that we were willing to help each other."
Coming off a grueling seven-game first-round series with the Utah Jazz, the Nuggets showed clear signs of fatigue in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals after having only one day off. Although Denver center Nikola Jokic said he "wasn't tired at all" following the opener, Malone acknowledged that there were some heavy legs, and guard Jamal Murray admitted that he was worn out from the previous series.
"Game 1, we were tired. Hate to admit it," Murray said in his postgame TNT interview.
Murray played 40 minutes in Game 2, scoring 27 points on 10-of-21 shooting and registering six assists. He said not playing in the fourth quarter of Game 1 combined with having the day off Friday helped him in getting his legs back.
"You could tell Jamal was much more rested tonight than in Game 1," Malone said.
After Game 1, Malone focused on the Nuggets' poor job containing the ball, saying it was a "layup line" for the Clippers. According to Second Spectrum data, the Nuggets allowed 59 points directly off 57 drives in the first contest. In Game 2, they allowed 39 direct points off 51 drives.
"Our energy, we had good energy," Murray said when asked what he saw as the biggest change between games. "We talked more, we helped out more, our one-on-one defense was better. We made shots. There wasn't a big difference between Game 1 and Game 2. We just made shots and came out with the right energy."
Malone credited forward Jerami Grant and guard Gary Harris for their defensive efforts, particularly in their matchups with Clippers stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. It was an uncharacteristically off night for Leonard (13 points on 4-of-17 shooting), and George finished with 22 points on 7-of-19 shooting.
It was the lowest-scoring game this postseason for the Clippers, with their worst shooting percentages from the field and beyond the 3-point line and their most turnovers. In Game 1, Leonard had seven blow-bys, but he had zero in Game 2, according to Second Spectrum.
The noticeable difference in the Nuggets was evident from tipoff, as they outscored the Clippers 44-25 in the first quarter. There was little answer for the Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll, with Jokic posting a massive Game 2 line of 26 points and 18 rebounds. Murray and Jokic combined for 26 of Denver's 44 points in the first quarter.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was the Nuggets' first wire-to-wire win in a playoff game since 2013 against the Golden State Warriors.
"The big point of emphasis coming out of Game 1 was, as the game wore on, we stood, the ball didn't move, the bodies didn't move. We just came down and settled," Malone said. "We didn't make their defense work at all.
"I felt tonight there was a marked difference in our approach, our energy, our movement. And we made ourselves a lot harder to guard."
Despite a big early lead for the Nuggets on Saturday, the Clippers ramped up their energy, forcing turnovers and grabbing offensive rebounds to make a late push and put pressure on Denver to close.
"We've won a lot of close games over the last five years," Malone said. "Our group believes in themselves. We've shown we're a resilient group that can execute and find ways to win in close games down the stretch. It's great to be able to tie the series up and have that life and belief going into the next game."