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Recap: Denver Nuggets starters struggle, but bench carries them to 111-91 win over Los Angeles Clippers

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Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic make their preseason debuts

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets had some difficulty containing Kawhi Leonard in his Los Angeles Clippers debut, but got plenty of help from their bench and Michael Porter Jr to secure a win. Nikola Jokic was solid in his what was his first game of the preseason as well, recording a double double in just twenty-two minutes. Leonard was likewise excellent for the Clippers and if this had been a regular season game where he played 35 minutes perhaps the outcome would have been different. Denver’s depth proved to be too much to handle for Los Angeles though and the Nuggets used a strong second half performance to get the 111-91 win.

Denver was a bit sluggish out of the gate, whereas the Clippers were bolstered by the energy they got from Leonard making his debut. Despite it being a bit sloppy, the Nuggets got their offense running through Jokic and kept pace with L.A. Kawhi checked out pretty early on, playing about 4 minutes to open the game. It didn’t slow down the Clippers though. Montrezl Harrell was providing offense along with Landry Shamet which got L.A. on a 10-2 run. Jamal Murray responded for Denver but the game was decidedly in preseason form with a bevy of turnovers from both sides. Leonard checked back in and found immediate success with Ivica Zubac on the pick and roll. Malik Beasley had a couple buckets as the quarter came to a close and after one it was the Clippers up by 6.

Jerami Grant opened the second quarter with a three and Monte Morris had found his groove. Meanwhile, the Clippers offense stalled with Leonard once again on the bench. Just around the 8 minute mark Beasley knocked down a mid-range jumper to cap a 7-0 run and give the Nuggets the lead. The Clippers responded with a Shamet-Zubac two man game and immediately regained the advantage. L.A. rattled off an 11-2 run before Murray finally broke it up with a bucket. With the Nuggets full compliment of starters on the court and Leonard on the bench, Denver climbed back in the game once again. They got within a point but Lou Williams and Harrell were giving the Nuggets all they could handle. Harrell finished a great leak out with just seconds to go in the half to push L.A.’s lead to nine.

The Nuggets starters came out with energy to start the second half while Kawhi’s night appeared to be done. That allowed Denver to rattle off a 10-3 run to get within two before stalling and reverting back to the sloppy play that had plagued the first half. Jokic got a nice pass from Barton in the lane with about seven minutes to play to take the lead back for Denver. From there both teams started getting into a rhythm and traded one point leads for a few minutes. The benches began to check in at the three minute mark, signaling the end of the night for the starters. Denver’s bench closed out the quarter strong. Beasley was giving them good minutes along with Mason Plumlee who finished a nice alley-oop just before the end of the quarter. Denver closed out the third on an 8-0 run and took a five point lead into the fourth.

Michael Porter Jr checked in to open the fourth and quickly found himself open in the lane for an easy jam and the Nuggets bench continued to push the ball which allowed them to stretch the lead to double digits. MPJ was doing work down low for the Nuggets. After Los Angeles got it back to 8 points, Porter had a pair of putbacks to stretch the lead back out. Malone subbed in Vlatko Cancar to give the Nuggets their point guard plus length lineup (in this case P.J. Dozier, Porter, Cancar, Juancho Hernangomez and Jarred Vanderbilt) and they were just too much for the Clippers’ deep bench to handle. With five minutes left the lead had grown to fourteen. As the game wound down the lead continued to grow behind MPJ. He was making the right play after the right play wound up with 12 points in 12 minutes on 6 of 7 shooting. When the horn sounded, Denver had the win behind a twenty point lead.

Best matchup: Nikola Jokic vs Montrezl Harrell

NBA: OCT 10 Preseason - Nuggets at Clippers Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It was great to see Nikola back in the lineup. While the game was undoubtedly sloppy, the Nuggets looked more comfortable operating their offense with Jokic as the point man. Even though Nikola didn’t seem to be dominating, he still was piling up the stat sheet and registered a double-double. On the Clippers side, Harrell was outstanding. He was a constant presence on defense and was great working with Leonard in the pick and roll. Given his natural improvement, the fact that the Clippers will get a ton of media coverage and that teams will have to gameplan for his teammates more than him, Harrell is a decent bet to win Most Improved Player of the Year.

Main thing I noticed: The backcourt struggled

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Yikes. So. Many. Turnovers. There was no doubt that the Nuggets are still working off the rust, particularly their starting backcourt. Murray had a decent game on offense, including a couple big shots. He didn’t do a great job on defense though, letting Lou Williams get what he wanted too many times. For Gary Harris it was a night to forget. He shot just 2-7 from the field and 0-3 from three. On top of the poor shooting he had seven turnovers, some of them particularly egregious. I wouldn’t get too concerned with it though, guys are going to have off nights and that’s even more true in exhibition games. In the end, you’d rather have Gary throw up a stinker like this in the preseason than when the games actually count.

Closing thought: Depth will be a key once again this year

One of the main reasons the Nuggets were so successful last year is that they had tremendous depth. Not only did it allow them to weather a series of injuries, but it also gave them a distinct advantage when the bench portions of the rotation were on the court. Somehow Denver is even deeper this year. The starters struggled to keep pace with Kawhi and company but the Nuggets bench consistently outplayed their counterparts whether that was the second or third unit.

Speaking of depth, MPJ looked really good tonight. He didn’t look like an explosive mega phenom like some people want him to but that’s what is actually encouraging about tonight. He was making the simple plays, doing the little things and finding success. His off ball play was great, he was a factor on the offensive and defensive glass and he still had a couple of those moments where you saw that tantalizing offensive talent. We haven’t seen that explosion game yet from Porter, but two games in a row now he’s absolutely looked like an NBA rotation player.