The Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers both took this game seriously to start, but in a heavyweight contest the Nuggets blinked first, coughed up a 19-point third quarter lead and lost a heart-breaker 122-120. Denver’s 5 starters all had 18+ points in the game, led by Gary Harris’s 23, and the team had 27 assists but the 20 turnovers and getting just 24 points from the bench to 74 from Los Angeles were back-breakers. The Nuggets had too many miscues and let themselves down with a disastrous 7+ minutes bridging the third and fourth quarters. This one will sting for a while, as Denver drops out of the current playoff standings with the loss.

The Nuggets won the tip, and Jokic then threw a cross-court pass to Will Barton for the early bucket. Jokic pulled an early foul defending DeAndre Jordan, followed by an Austin Rivers 3. Barton had a turnover and Gary Harris got blocked on his way to the hoop, but Chandler managed to finish over Tobias Harris. Another turnover from Denver turned into a dunk finish for the Clippers and a 9-4 lead for Los Angeles. The Jokic Connection was out of rhythm early.

Denver had another turnover out of the timeout, but Jamal Murray got the steal on the next Clipper possession and took it down the court for a layup. Gary Harris hit a three, but Jokic picked up his second foul trying to draw a charge and had to sit halfway through the quarter. DeAndre Jordan immediately dunked over Plumlee and drew another foul, but Plumlee finished an oop on the other end. And then Paul Millsap came back in the game to a standing ovation. 

A Plumlee-to-Chandler 3 tied the game at 16 as both teams traded buckets. Millsap and Plumlee together fortified the paint defense but couldn’t take the lead until Millsap hit a running hook layup at the bucket for a 22-20 Denver advantage. Plumlee missed three shots on one possession but Devin Harris finished the next time down. Will Barton got a block on Harrell on one end then a three point play on the other end. Devin Harris got another three point playe on Teodosic as the Clippers struggled to stop Denver’s guards, Millsap banked in a three at the end of the shot-clock in the final few seconds, and Denver pulled out to a 33-24 lead after one. 

The Clippers scoured the first 6 points of the quarter, hitting some threes, but Denver kept attacking the basket with both passes and drives. Denver’s defense-to-transition-offense was great, and Wilson Chandler even threw a behind-the-head pass to Barton on the baseline for a layup to push the lead back to 11, 41-30. Teodosic kept the Clippers in it in the second quarter as Denver had some defensive lapses and a couple of missed threes, but both teams got up and down the floor in a hurry with their bench units. 

Jokic came back in at the 7 minute mark with Denver up 45-39 (next to Millsap) and Barton hit another jumper after some good Millsap defense. Chandler worked hard on the glass and had 10 first-half points, then got fouled in transition to get free throws to take Denver’s lead back to double-digits at 51-41. The Clippers went on a quick 6-0 run, though, as they refused to go away. Millsap ended it by forcing the ball in the hoop with a quick spin and tip-in, then drew a charge. His pass to Murray for a Jokic-screened finish was beautiful. Jokic left the game with a couple minutes to go to keep his fouls at 2 for the half, but didn’t score. Millsap got a block, Barton hit a transition three, but the Nuggets botched their offense to finish the half and let the Clippers get too many foul shots. The Nuggets still led 58-52 at the half. 

Both teams started a bit sloppy to start the third, with turnovers and airballs and missed opportunities. Gary Harris hit a three and Jokic got to the line off a nice pass as their offense settled down a bit. Jokic tossed a nice assist to Gary Harris for a dunk and then the center nailed a three as he found his stroke in the second half to put Denver back up 9, 70-61. 

Jokic fueled the run with some great passes, tough rebounds and foul shots set up by good Murray passes as Denver pushed the lead back to 15. Millsap checked back in and played next to Jokic, and immediately grabbed a rebount and threw a full-court pass to Chandler for a layup, and then Gary Harris got a steal for another putback. All that running early by the Nuggets paid off with some tired Clipper legs as Denver kept the pressure up.  Jokic had to get some rest and Los Angeles would not go away, though. Denver could have salted the game away at the end of the third but some ill-advised shots and poor rebounding let the Clippers close with a 13-2 run to make it 88-81 after 3.

Denver started the fourth with an offensive foul on Millsap, and Milos Teodosic hit a three to close it to a four point deficit. A Millsap turnover turned into a Lou Williams three and the deficit fell to one which led to Jokic trying briefly to come back in with just 90 seconds gone in the fourth. The Clippers took the lead at 90-89 when Malone sent Jokic back to the bench, and Murray fought back with a made jumper but all the offensive flow vanished for the Nuggets while the Clippers motored back around the court. Jokic did get back in the game shortly thereafter, but Murray had a terrible turnover and Denver had no defensive answers, falling behind 98-92 while being buried by a 17-4 run to start the quarter.

Denver’s young guards wouldn’t quit though. Gary Harris got to the line and then hit a three, and Jamal Murray nailed a technical foul, then finished off a hard-fought tip-in and foul shot to tie the game at 102. The two teams exchanged more free throws and paint points, but Denver could not get the stops against Los Angeles’s bench combo of size and weirdly-effective shooting. The Clippers went up 115-108 with three minutes to go as Denver was demolished by Boban Marjanovic and Lou Williams.

Coach Michael Malone had used all but one of his timeouts frivolously earlier in the game and had no way to call timeout to stop the momentum or organize his troops, and Doc Rivers had no reason help him out. Jokic hit a huge three but defensively the Nuggets had no answers and every Nuggets miss led to an increasing deficit. The Nuggets finally found a few cracks to exploit, though. Gary Harris made a pair of free throws, Murray made a drive and Denver closed it to one possession… but then Wilson Chandler made a huge error and chose to foul Lou Williams and send him to the line unnecessarily. Williams made one of two, and then Gary Harris shouldered himself open for a three to make it a one point game as Denver refused to go away.

Trey Lyles played the trap on LA’s inbounds play poorly though and had to foul Williams, who made both. Murray got fouled and made both shots to keep the Denver deficit at one, Austin Williams made only one of two fouls and Denver had a shot to tie at the end. Jamal Murray took the ball all the way up court and wanted the final moment rather than passing and got stripped. The Clippers dribbled out the clock and Denver’s hopes for a victory as the Nuggets lost 122-120. It felt about like this:

Three Thoughts

Millsap is back! Forget the pain of the game for one second and just revel in the return of the All-Star, who looked like he’d never left. He was everywhere, finishing in the paint, throwing passes to cutters and blocking shots against everyone he could reach. He had 7 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in just 13 first-half minutes, but his defensive presence was everywhere. He had his legs the whole first half, which I wasn’t expecting. By the second quarter, Coach Malone was running plays through Millsap.

Even just a few minutes with Millsap showed what a difference he can make for Denver on the defensive end, and he fit back into the offense better than anyone could have expected for his first effort in three months. He got tired in the second half, but Millsap already contributing at a high level and understanding how to fill his much-needed role on both sides of the court immediately will do a lot for Denver through this last stretch. He takes Denver from fun and interesting to dangerous – and we all want Denver to be dangerous.

The Nuggets HAVE to solve their bench woes and miscues. Okay, back to the pain. Jokic was off-kilter to start the game but still came on strong. The early fouls threw his game off, and he looked out of sorts for most of the first quarter, but blew the doors off in the third and led Denver to that 19 point lead when everything was beautiful. The Nuggets then somehow lost the third quarter 30-29 and allowed 41 points in the fourth. This was not a Jokic defensive problem, as approximately 482 points were scored with him on the bench. Denver just… stopped. They stopped moving the ball on offense, they stopped defending, they stopped rebounding. Los Angeles threw its bench out there and was 5 minutes from waiving the white flag, and instead pulled out a victory because Denver couldn’t close the deal.

This is not a one-time occurance, it’s a season-long malaise. Devin Harris was brought in to help the bench but played just 12 minutes and was -8 in those minutes. Malone blew his timeouts on early frustration issues, leaving him with just one timeout for most of the fourth and unable to respond or change anything up while the Clippers obliterated Denver with the high screen and roll ad nauseum. Nikola Jokic looked set to check in with a minute and a half gone in the fourth to try to proactively avert disaster, then was called back to the bench for two minutes for some reason. Wilson Chandler fouled Lou Williams unnecessarily because he wasn’t aware of the situation. Jamal Murray didn’t set up for a play at the end but attempted hero ball at the final buzzer in his finest Will Barton fashion and failed.

The Nuggets have too many miscues at this point in the season, and still cannot stop bad things from avalanching them down the mountain. Malone’s timeouts set up dubious offensive possessions and wasted future opportunities to stop the wreckage before it became unwinnable. If this was a playoff game, then the lights were too bright for Denver tonight and that’s a shame. For most of three quarters they looked exceedingly dangerous. By the end they just looked overwhelmed, and if this team plans to make the playoffs they have to stop letting small fragments of time destroy large swaths of good work.