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Preview: Nuggets face off against Kawhi Leonard and the LA Clippers

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A one game road trip to LA

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off of a blowout win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, the Nuggets now hit the road for a battle against the Los Angeles Clippers on national television.

The Clippers ran the Nuggets off the court in their only matchup so far this season, a forgettable way to cap off Christmas Day. But these are not the same Nuggets as even just three months ago - Aaron Gordon has arrived and in just two games played has helped shore up both sides of the ball. With him, Denver looks to have all the pieces needed to truly contend.

LA will be another litmus test, even with several key players out due to injury. The Clippers had won six in row before falling to RJ Hampton and the Orlando Magic on Tuesday. They have the league’s second best offense and third best net rating and will always be a tough outing. That said, the Nuggets have looked unbeatable since Gordon arrived, but is it too good to be true? Another huge win here would provide a lot of validation.

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (29-18) vs LA Clippers (32-17)

When: 8:00 PM MDT

Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, California

How to Watch: TNT

Projected Lineups

Position Nuggets Clippers
Position Nuggets Clippers
PG Jamal Murray Reggie Jackson
SG Will Barton Luke Kennard
SF Aaron Gordon Kawhi Leonard
PF Michael Porter Jr. Nic Batum
C Nikola Jokic Ivica Zubac
Bench Paul Millsap, JaMychal Green, Facu Campazzo, PJ Dozier Patrick Patterson, Amir Coffey, Terrance Mann

Injury Report: Monte Morris, Patrick Beverly, Paul George, Serge Ibaka - out; Marcus Morris - questionable

Three Things to Watch

Aaron Gordon vs. Kawhi Leonard. One of the main reasons Denver traded for Gordon was so he could match up against the elite wing players in the West. Kawhi is near the top of that list and tonight we’ll get to see just how effective Gordon can be in those situations. It’s unfortunate that both George and Ibaka are out as all three have length that challenged the Nuggets in their first meeting and would present a more realistic scenario, but this also allows for Gordon to focus on one sole player in Kawhi.

The Starters. The Nuggets’ lineup of Jamal Murray/Will Barton/Aaron Gordon/Michael Porter Jr./Nikola Jokic has been literally unstoppable the past two games, posting an offensive rating of 130.7 and a defensive rating of 94.2. They bulldozed the Sixers the other night, the second best defense in the league, like it was nothing. MPJ specifically has seemed to benefit from Gordon’s presence as defenders now have to choose between the two on the wing; Porter shot 5-7 from three on Tuesday and made it look hella easy. Seeing this group play at such a high level has been pure joy and there’s no reason to think that will change, even against the Clippers.

The implications of this game. While this is a just a weeknight game in the regular season, this game does have implications. For one, it’s the first of just six remaining National TV games for Denver. Joel Embiid is set to return later this week, so for Jokic to keep his MVP campaign momentum strong an impressive night and a big win would go a long way. More importantly, the Nuggets are just one game behind the Clippers in the loss column. A win would tie Denver’s losses with both Los Angeles teams since the Bucks also beat the Lakers last night, and it would even the tiebreaker with the Clippers. No one wants to face either Los Angeles team in the first round, but with Phoenix and Utah playing so well there’s a real likelihood one of them is a 4 or 5 seed. Denver should do everything it can to get up to the 3 seed and avoid getting trapped in a 4-5 matchup with one of the LA’s altogether.