NBA: Murray and Jokic carry Nuggets to Conference Finals, Heat squeak by in OT thriller

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Los Angeles Clippers guard Patrick Beverley (21) is pressured by Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) as he drives with the ball during the second half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo.

The Denver Nuggets are a problem.  

More specifically, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are a problem.  

For the second straight series, the Nuggets found themselves down three games to one, this time against the championship-favorite Los Angeles Clippers. But for the second time they came out on top, becoming the first team in NBA history to come back from such a deficit in back-to-back series. It has taken a complete team effort spearheaded by Murray and Jokic, but somehow Denver has found their way to a 6-0 record in elimination games and earned a spot in the Western Conference Finals. 

Through the first half it looked as though the Clips were in control and that their star power and veteran leadership was too much for the young Nuggets to handle. Kawhi and the Clippers would inch their lead slowly up to around eight to 10 points, but some key runs from Murray and the Nuggets would keep it close until they were finally ready to pull ahead. This was exemplified at the end of the first half. 

The Clippers held a 10-point lead with a couple minutes left and it looked like they were poised to run away with it, but Murray had other thoughts. A 20-point quarter highlighted by his own 8-0 run to end the half cut the gap to two and told you all you needed to know about how the rest of the game was going to go. Once the second half tipped off it looked like the Nuggets were the favorite to go all the way and LA was simply there for the ride.  

Once the third quarter started, the Clippers hit a bit of a cold stretch, reminiscent of the Playoff P we saw earlier in LA’s playoff run. But while their struggles began, the Nuggets hit their stride and never looked back. Murray and Jokic took over on the offensive end while the defense worked as a unit to completely shut down PG and Kawhi. After three, the Nuggets had extended their lead to eight, and at game’s end earned the 15-point victory in a decisive Game 7. 

By the time the final buzzer sounded, Murray dropped 40 points — pretty average for him these playoffs — while Jokic put together an insane 16/22/13 triple double. Meanwhile for the Clippers, their two stars combined to score just 24 points on 10/38 shooting. 

Next up for the Nuggets is a matchup against the other team out of LA, LeBron and the Lakers. 

Out in the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics faced off in the first matchup of their Conference Finals. This was the first time in NBA history that neither the 1-seed or 2-seed has made it to this stage of the playoffs, paving the way for an exciting new matchup, and they did not disappoint. 

Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, left, celebrates the team’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers with center Nikola Jokic (15) and guard Jamal Murray (27) in an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo.

This game was about as back-and forth as they get, with each quarter being decided by at least eight points. The Celtics struck first, getting out to an early eight-point lead after one, but Goran Dragic led the Heat back in the second and at halftime Miami found themselves up four. Dragic would end the game leading Miami in scoring with 29 points and chipping in seven boards. 

The third and fourth quarters mirrored the first half, with the Celtics once again regaining control early on only for the Heat to mount a comeback in the final quarter. But it was the overtime period that made this one special. 

With 15 seconds left in OT, Jimmy Butler drove in on Tatum with the Celtics up by one. On the drive he took not one, but two hits, drew the foul and hit the layup, where after converting the and-1, he gave his team a two-point lead. On the other end of the court, with time winding down the Celtics put the ball in Jayson Tatum’s hands. 

A screen at the top of the key left Tatum with what appeared to be an open lane to the hoop, but it was Bam Adebayo who came out of nowhere from the weak side, met Tatum in the air and got what was potentially the block of the year at the rim. In the end, that stifling defense that had gotten Miami this far once again prevailed and earned them a crucial Game 1 win to set the tone for the rest of this series. 

Game 2 is set for Thursday at 7 p.m. where the Celtics will try to earn their first win while the Heat attempt to extend their lead as they try to become the first 5-seed in NBA history to win the NBA Finals. 

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