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Recap: Nuggets survive the Clippers to win on the road

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The Nuggets beat a Clippers team on the road, which is huge, even without three of the Clippers stars suiting up.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of the holidays, the Denver Nuggets gave their fans something to cheer about with a 106-102 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Nuggets were gifted a late holiday gift today with news that in addition to Blake Griffin remaining sidelined after knee surgery, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick each sat out with hamstring injuries. The Clippers started Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Luc Mbah a Moute, Wesley Johnson, and DeAndre Jordan, while the Nuggets came out with their normal five-man group.

Nikola Jokic recorded his first foul 23 seconds into the game with a single second on the shot clock, not a great sign for things to come. Mudiay hit his first shot, a fadeaway from the paint, to open up the Nuggets’ scoring. Lots of turnovers to start the game for both teams, and while the kids were the culprits last time, the two elder statesmen, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, were at fault to start. They connected for a nice alley-oop though. In spite of some sloppy play, the starting five shot out to a 13-8 lead before Kenneth Faried subbed in for Chandler.

Faried promptly gave up an open lane for a layup and a wide open three to Mbah a Moute, to which Mudiay responded with a made three. After the timeout, the Nuggets committed an 8 second violation and a 24 second violation, which helped the Clippers tie the game up at 19. The Nuggets responded by running the offense through Jokic, which is a good idea even when Jokic doesn’t make every shot. The Nuggets then went with an all-veteran lineup, which settled for Faried contested hook shots and Galinari 30 footers. That group missed the last seven shots of the quarter, and if I never see it again, it will be too soon. The first quarter ended tied at 23 all.

The second quarter opened up with a Murray fadeaway jumper at the end of the shot clock, followed by a Barton three pointer. This group looked a lot more aggressive offensively, which is partially Barton being a great slasher and partially Jordan sitting on the bench. Marreese Speights is many things, but he’s no rim protector. The defense on the other end left a lot to be desired. At one point, two Nuggets ran into each other in a miscommunication, which embodies so much of the Nuggets season at this point. Jokic returned to the game at about the 8:20 mark in the second quarter. He picked up his second foul 11 seconds later. It was clear that Barton came to play offensively, as he roared out to 10 points in his first eight minutes. He also created some easy shot attempts for Faried and Jokic.

Jokic started going to work at this point, demanding the basketball and making some really nice moves. He and Gallinari joined Barton as the Nuggets to eclipse double figures in the half. After a Gallo turnover, Jokic may have gotten his most air on a jump this season, deflecting a full court pass intended for a streaking Jordan, turning it into a Barton And-1 on the other end. This group played very well together on both ends, going on a 16-2 run near the end of the second quarter.

After a timeout, Jokic was removed from the game to save him from picking up his third foul. This was the clearest sign of the night that Jusuf Nurkic is in the doghouse, as the Nuggets defended Jordan with Chandler for three full possessions. They survived without a true big man though, as Mudiay canned another three pointer and extended the lead to 63-46 going into halftime.

The Nuggets started out incredibly sloppy in the third quarter, letting the Clippers go on a 9-0 run. They responded with a layup and a three pointer though, which absolutely killed the Clippers’ momentum. I was really impressed with Jokic at this point, as Jordan went right at him, and the young Serbian responded on both ends, keeping the offense going. That being said, he had his faults, as did Mudiay and his decision making.

Malone benched Mudiay for Jameer Nelson at this point, who repaid the decision with an immediate three pointer. With better play on both ends, the Nuggets maintained a double digit lead. Jokic then committed a fourth foul with a light push in the backcourt.

The veteran lineup of Nelson-Harris-Barton-Gallinari-Faried proceeded to look absolutely awful. It didn’t help that the refs gifted a couple of calls to the Clippers, but it culminated in Chandler subbing in and committing an offensive foul, then sagging off on Jamal Crawford at the end of a shot clock...the Clippers cut the Nuggets’ lead to just two, 79-77, at the end of the quarter. This defense by Faried really caught my eye.

The Nuggets came out flat in the fourth quarter, and allowed the Clippers a 17-3 run dating back to the end of the third quarter. Chandler really killed the Nuggets tonight, committing five turnovers and giving up open shots to Speights. The Nuggets had no deterrents at the rim with Faried at center and no guards willing to stay in front of their man. It was murderous.

At the 8:20 mark in the fourth, Jokic was reinserted as the center for Faried and hit a key three pointer. The defense began to tighten up at this point, keeping the Nuggets within a four point deficit at 95-91. Chandler hit his first shot with 4:20 left in the fourth to cut the lead to just two. After a couple of possessions, Jokic got a switch in the post and hit and bank shot for an And-1, but missed the free throw to keep the game tied. After corralling a rebound on the defensive end, Jokic hit another three at the top of the key to give Denver the lead.

After a timeout, the two teams traded baskets, and then Jameer took a Jameer Nelson-classic contested three point pull-up with about a minute to go. I nearly threw my computer. After an open dunk by Jordan, Barton came down and drained a turnaround jumper near the elbow, helping maintain a three point lead. After Speights had a good look at a game-tying jumper, Nelson came up with a huge rebound and helped run down the clock. Gallinari sunk two free throws before Crawford sunk another three, but it was too late for the Clippers. The Nuggets made their free throws at the end to finish with a victory, 106-102.

Key Factor - Controlling the glass

DeAndre Jordan is a top three rebounder in basketball, and going into this game, I was a little fearful of how Jokic would respond to his physical play the second time around. What I saw was a team fully invested in making sure Jordan wasn’t going to change the game by grabbing extra opportunities off missed shots for his team. In the game, Jordan accumulated 11 rebounds, while Jokic matched him with 10. The team followed Jokic’s lead here and grabbed seemingly every rebound tonight, finishing with a 51-38 advantage on the boards. This game was very physical, and the Nuggets were able to match intensity to grab a much needed win.

Closing Thought - Another close game

This game was set up to be exactly like previous games, but the Nuggets came up big here. Barton, Gallinari, Jokic, and Nelson all made great plays in the clutch tonight, getting buckets, sinking free throws, and coming up huge on the defensive glass. This team proved resilient after looking broken at the end of the third quarter. Jokic came up big with 24 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals. Barton also played incredibly well with 23, 8, and 6, while Gallo had 23 and 11. Those three were absolutely huge throughout the game. The Clippers were without Paul, Redick, and Griffin, but it didn’t change the fact that the Nuggets grabbed a huge win tonight on the road.

Up next, the Nuggets come home to face the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers at home. As I said in the preview, the Nuggets went 0-5 last year at this point in the season to basically put the year away. Now, they have an opportunity to win the next two games and get to 15-18, certainly within striking distance of a playoff spot.

Now, let’s continue taking care of business and hope that those who were banged up tonight are okay.