The Clippers battled, but were ultimately outplayed by the Nuggets and soon-to-be-MVP Nikola Jokic, losing 110-104. Keep reading for a full recap of the Clippers’ loss to the Nuggets.
The Clippers started off the game looking rejuvenated by the return of Kawhi Leonard. They moved the ball brilliantly, creating a series of open looks that resulted in making their first seven shots. On the other end, they played solid defense, limiting the damage of Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr., and producing an early double-digit lead. Unfortunately, misses started creeping in, and the Nuggets began to push. After starting cold, Paul George did drain a couple corner threes to keep the Clippers ahead, but the Clips lead sat at just one going into the second period.
Fascinatingly, despite missing most of the past month, Kawhi Leonard started the 2nd quarter, maintaining the full stagger we saw with him and George for most of the year. Less positively, the bench + Kawhi unit was dreadful. The Nuggets repeatedly attacked Patrick Patterson, and either scored directly on him or made threes after the Clippers’ scrambling fell up short. The bench also couldn’t generate any offense, and the Nuggets were able to build up an eight-point advantage. The Clippers’ starters were able to stabilize the defense, but could not capitalize on the forced Nuggets’ misses. Instead, a series of missed shots by both teams saw very little change in the score, and the Nuggets taking a five-point lead into halftime.
The Clippers again started off the half well, with George, Leonard, and Jackson jumpers giving them a brief one point advantage. Then, however, another scoring drought hit, during which the Nuggets were able to re-take the lead. The quarter was a battle for both teams, with some terrific defense, low turnovers, and generally tough play. The difference was Jokic, who scored at whatever look the Clippers through at him, and made several absurd shots. The Clippers’ inability to get easy looks resulted in a slow Nuggets’ build-up, culminating in a 12-point lead. The Clippers cut it to 10 going into the 4th with DeMarcus Cousins free throws, but all momentum remained with the Nuggets.
Ty Lue switched up the rotation entering the 4th, putting Luke out there for an all-bench lineup instead of staggering with Leonard. The lineup change didn’t make much a difference, with Rondo continuing his stellar play and DeMarcus Cousins also chipping in. However, Cousins was a liability on the other end, with guards blowing past him after switches on the perimeter, and multiple slow closes to shooters. Weirdly enough, his defense improved when Jokic came back in, as Cousins’ physical presence matches up well with Jokic. Even with a late surge from Kawhi Leonard, however, the Clippers were never able to get closer than three points away, and the game was never really in doubt.
Jokic is MVP: Nikola Jokic was spectacular tonight. He scored 30 points on 17 shots, pulled in 14 rebounds, and dished out 7 assists with no turnovers. While he was fairly quiet down the stretch, his 3rd quarter is what gave the Nuggets the cushion to win the game, and he also made the dagger assist to Campazzo late in the game. With so many other potential MVP candidates having missed a bunch of time, and the Nuggets surging even without Jamal Murray, he should be the runaway MVP candidate. Really, he’s closer to being a “should be unanimous” selection than “there’s an MVP conversation”. As mentioned across the recap, he was the best player on the court on this one, and the Clippers’ just had no answers for the Nuggets’ star.
Rondo Comes Up Big: Rajon Rondo played 30 minutes in this one, by far his most as a Clipper, and the Clips needed every minute of it. Shockingly, it wasn’t Rondo’s defense or playmaking that was so valuable – it was his scoring. Rondo was second on the Clippers with 18 points behind George’s 20, and scored far, far more efficiently than PG. Any time it looked like the Nuggets were pulling away, Rondo would hit a jumper or dash to the hoop for a layup. He had some nice rebounds and assists as well, and while the defense is still somewhat inconsistent (he gambles a lot, and those can backfire), he was insane on offense tonight. The Clippers can’t ask any more of him.
Closing with Cousins: Ty Lue made the decision to close with DeMarcus Cousins tonight, a decision I have mixed feelings on. On one hand, I like Ty’s experimentation and willingness to ride the hot hand. Cousins played extremely well, offensively, and was along with Rondo the only guy who consistently took it at the Nuggets. On the other hand, he’s just not good defensively on the perimeter, and while that didn’t hurt the Clippers too much in the last few minutes, it cost them to start the 4th quarter. And, to be blunt, Ivica Zubac is just a better player than Cousins is. He’s a better defender, a better rebounder, and a better finisher around the bucket. Cousins can create his own shot, which is nice, but that’s not something that this Clippers team should be relying on. Cousins has given the Clippers some nice minutes, and is by all accounts a great locker room presence. He should not be playing 14 straight minutes down the stretch of games on a regular basis, and hopefully this was just a one-time occurrence.
Paul George Was Bad: Paul George was bad. He couldn’t hit shots, and even missed several free throws. He didn’t have any turnovers, which was a plus, but he needs to be better. That’s my Paul George analysis.
That about does it for this recap of the Clippers’ game against the Nuggets. This loss pushed the Clippers into the 4 seed, while the Mavs’ win earlier now has them in the 5 seed. Not a bad outcome with the Jazz also in 1st. However, the standings are in total flux, so what is promising now could be awful tomorrow.