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Recap: Nuggets win the season opener 107-98 over the Clippers

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Denver pulled out a win on a tough shooting night against a quality opponent

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Nuggets basketball is back in a big way, as the Nuggets win their season opener on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers 107-98. Denver’s offense wasn’t always pretty but they found a way with good energy and timely defensive output, and put the clamps on the Clippers down the stretch as Los Angeles seemed hampered at times by its pair of defensive guards. Patrick Beverly and Avery Bradley could not find the right keys to the offense at the right times while Denver’s offense and rebounding showed up at the end.

Nikola Jokic led the way for Denver with 21 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists, while Gary Harris poured in 20 points of his own. Both men had crucial buckets down the stretch, taking over from Will Barton who had most of his 19 points before the stretch and Trey Lyles added another 10 points and seven boards. Boban Marjanovic almost ended Denver single-handedly with 18 points and 8 rebounds in just 18 minutes, and old friend Danilo Gallinari added 16 points before evaporating in the closing minutes.

The Nuggets started the game hitting the glass but not the shots until Will Barton slammed it home for Denver’s first bucket. Gary Harris clanged a dunk and Millsap had a turnover. The teams started a combined 4-for-16 though before a Barton three put Denver up 7-5 with four minutes gone. Denver did a good job of limiting Los Angeles to one shot every time down the court but Denver relied on guard shots while Jokic floated to the corner a few times. The Nuggets ran some dribble handoffs that turned into slashes toward the basket though and Harris’s free throws put Denver up 11-8 at the six minute mark.

Jokic made four free throws as he got more active to cap a 13-5 scoring run, ended by a 30 foot shot from LA’s Lou Willams. The Clippers called a timeout after a Gary Harris finish and came back with some points and defense to close to within two, but Jokic got back to the line and Barton hit another three to go up 24-19. The bench began to filter in around the two minute mark, with Lyles making a pair of free throws but the Clippers finally getting to the charity stripe also. Monte Morris finished the quarter with a last second drive to the hoop as Denver took a 29-24 lead after one.

The benches of both teams started off the second quarter playing fast but not always efficiently. Then Beasley made a drive and a lucky-bounce three while the Morris-to-Plumlee oop made an appearance. Juancho Hernangomez got a great block on one end that led to a Trey Lyles bucket on the other and a 38-27 Nuggets lead. The whole second unit played with great energy and execution in their first stint and handed Jokic a 9 point lead when he checked back in. The Clippers then went on 10-2 run with their starters against Denver’s bench with just Jokic in with them with offensive rebounds playing a big key in the quarter.

Los Angeles closed to within three before the rest of Denver’s starters came in, then tied it up at 46 all. The teams traded fouls and buckets for the next couple of minutes, with some early season bad shots thrown in. Barton hit a three, Jokic drove the hoop, and a fast-break corner three for Murray (and a one-on-three fast break stop by Millsap) helped Denver reclaim the halftime lead at 59-54.

Millsap started the quarter for Denver with a paint miss, as did Barton, but Jokic cleaned it up for a bucket. The Nuggets had good offensive energy and took a 9 point lead after some Gary Harris free throws. Gallinari hit a three for the Clips but both teams played some better, scrambling defense. The teams traded buckets and bricks for a couple of minutes, as Jokic missed a pair of wide open threes but Denver kept that five point lead at 68-63 after a Barton finish. Denver lost a few buckets due to travel calls and a nice effort block from Harrell as the play got sloppy, but the Clippers couldn’t take advantage.

Denver scored just 10 points in the first 9 minutes of the quarter but still led as the benches began to enter. Boban hit free throws, Juancho swished a three, but Denver clung to a two point lead at 74-72 after a dismal offensive quarter by both teams.

Boban slammed home a ball to tie the game, but Juancho answered with a layup and Lyles finished a drive to make it a four point lead. Shae Gilgeous-Alexander continued a great rookie debut with a block on one end and a paint bucket on the other. Morris answered back with a banked three, but the Nuggets had a bag of misses as big as their hustle. Tobias Harris tied the game at 81 and no one could stop Boban in the paint as the Clippers went on an 8-0 scoring run. He even broke the rim.

Boban frustrated Denver inside while Gallo hit a three and the Clippers ramped up their energy. The Clippers took an 8 point lead with 5 minutes to go before Denver’s guards hit a pair of buckets. After a weird sort-of-techical foul call on Lou Williams for loitering on the court, Jokic turned up the star power as he hit a huge three pointer to close it to 94-93 with under three minutes to go, then got a putback on a blocked Murray shot that put Denver up by two at 97-95. Gary Harris hit a huge isolation pull-up, the Nuggets stuff the Clippers on the defensive end, and Harris hit a pair of free throws to ice it. From there, Millsap got some shooting practice from the charity stripe as Denver pulled away to victory.

Final Thoughts

The Nuggets still haven’t found their shot, but they have their toughness already. Continuing a theme from the preseason, Paul Millsap started the game 0-for-6. The Nuggets were shooting 26% from the floor in the second half with the starters shooting just 33% for the game with four minutes to go. Denver hasn’t got its legs yet which affects the shooting too, but this is not an offense that should ever struggle to put up 40 points in a half. For a team that will lean heavily on offense, it was their defensive energy that looked fine for long stretches while they struggled to make buckets. The Nuggets found their offense in spurts and gutted out this game, which for game one against a fellow playoff contender is all anyone can ask.

Denver’s bench looks like it can keep up its preseason play - with the right matchups. Malone left them in against the Clippers’ starters for a couple of minutes in the first half with just Jokic added to the unit and that hurt them a bit, but the pick and roll action was in full effect with Morris handling the ball to the tune of four first half assists, while the transition and slashing game also worked well. Hernangomez practically exploded into action after a relatively quiet preseason and Lyles looked like a starter.

And then they got exposed as a unit that could not find a stop against Boban in the paint. That’s more a Denver problem in general, but as the Nuggets fine-tune those rotations early in the season it will be key for the bench to keep up its production. For the first time in a while the proclaimed depth of the Nuggets might make a widespread impact in the box score too, but finding out which starters to mix with that bunch down the stretch .

It’s a win! Quibbling with early season wins seems foolish. Denver is still finding its footing but took a road win in their first try. It’s an auspicious start to the 2018-19 campaign. Enjoy the victory!