Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points and the Los Angeles Clippers rolled past the Denver Nuggets 120-97 on Thursday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Los Angeles shot 57 per cent from the field in an effort that convinced coach Doc Rivers that his team has adjusted and is in the proper frame of mind.
“If you don’t execute, it’s going to hurt you, and part of that is intensity and focus, and you have to have that on every single play,” Rivers said. “I don’t think we understood that early on. I think we do now.”
Nikola Jokic scored 15 points for the Nuggets, who shot just 42 per cent.
“I thought we just locked into our assignments,” George said. “I thought to be honest, that was the best we’ve done so far against an opponent. I think we just locked into our assignments. Our attention to detail was great. And we followed the game plan.”
Denver’s starters combined to score just 57 points on 20-for-48 shooting.
“They were aggressive,” Jokic said. “Our spacing was not good. We rushed shots. You can say whatever. It was a bad, bad night for us. … We can be better.”
Denver was coming off a seven-game series with Utah that just ended Tuesday.
“I think that definitely played a part,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “Their last game was Sunday. We had our last game on Tuesday night and didn’t get back to the hotel until after midnight. … We were tired. Tomorrow we will get them as much as rest as we can and have a more energetic performance Saturday night.”
Canadian Jamal Murray, who averaged 31.6 points in the first round and scored at least 50 points twice in that series, finished with just 12 points on 5-for-15 shooting.
“They are going to put everybody on Jamal, and we have to do a better job of freeing him up,” Malone said. “But also the ball is going to find the open man, and when the ball sticks and Jamal and everyone else is trying to play one-on-one and you are playing a good team, that is going to make it really hard.”
Morant crowned rookie of the year
The first three baskets of Memphis’ season set the tone for Ja Morant’s rookie year. All were layups, all by him, the level of difficulty increasing each time.
He made them look easy that night. He made plenty look easy all season.
Morant was announced Thursday as the runaway winner of the rookie of the year award for 2019-20, the first Grizzlies player to win the award since Pau Gasol in 2001-02. Morant averaged 17.8 points and 7.3 assists this season, picking up three Western Conference rookie of the month awards along the way.
Miami’s Kendrick Nunn was second and New Orleans’ Zion Williamson was third. Nunn, who was undrafted, averaged 15.3 points in 67 regular-season games — all starts — for the Heat. Williamson averaged 22.5 points and 6.3 rebounds, but the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft missed much of his rookie season while dealing with injury.
Morant got 99 of the 100 first-place votes, with Williamson getting the other. Morant’s Grizzlies teammate Brandon Clarke, of Vancouver, was fourth in the voting.
The balloting took place in July, before the season restarted at Walt Disney World. Games that occurred through March 11, the day the league shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, were the ones taken into account by voting panel of sports writers and broadcasters.
Morant said he’s already looking for ways to get better.
“I always feel like there’s room for improvement,” Morant said. “I’m looking to improve in every category.”
Morant’s rise has been meteoric; four years ago, he committed to mid-major Murray State as a guard who was unranked by the top national high school recruiting services. He averaged 12.7 points as a freshman, then entered the NBA draft after averaging 24.5 points and a nation-leading 10.0 assists per game while earning first-team All-American status as a sophomore.
“How I got here was crazy,” Morant said on his draft night.
It doesn’t look crazy that he’s here now.