The Denver Nuggets traveled back to California for the third time in four games but finally lost one to the Los Angeles Clippers, 109-103. Coach Michael Malone was cagey with his game plan in preparation for opening night against the Clippers next week. Denver’s starters played the first twelve minutes of the game together, then made way for 36 minutes of bench play from the Nuggets. Paul Millsap had three blocks and Nikola Jokic had three assists, but other than Will Barton’s 11 points in the quarter nobody else really stood out in a mostly-passive and uncomfortable time with the starting unit.

The bench came out strong though despite fading late, as Trey Lyles had 15 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists while Monte Morris put up 14 points and 6 assists, with a few showy dunk assists to Mason Plumlee. All in all the bench did what you could ask them to in the second quarter, but they got tired through third and fourth leading to the loss. It was still the sort of education you want to see in a preseason game.

Jokic had a nice handoff assist and screen for a three by Jamal Murray to open the scoring. Paul Millsap blocked Boban Marjanovic as Denver had active hands early. Barton hit at three to get Denver to a 7-2 lead, but Marjanovic in the paint was a handful, scoring 6 straight points as Jokic got two quick fouls. The Nuggets bricked several shots in a row, scared of Boban’s paint presence as Jokic struggled to run the offense and the Clippers roared back to a 12-7 advantage. The Nugget fought back, though, with Gary Harris doing this:

Barton hit a paint rainbow to tie it at 14 and make a beautiful full-court transition bucket, while Millsap got two more blocks with a pair of buckets at last (it’s been a tough-shooting preseason for him) but thanks to a barrage of three pointers from Los Angeles Denver trailed 30-26 after one quarter. 

The bench all came in together to start the second quarter, where the Clippers kept hitting threes no matter who was in the game. A steal and dunk took it to 38-28 Clippers early. Lyles drained a 3 after a timeout, and a Beasley-to-Plumlee jam helped Denver’s bench claw their way back. Lyles and Torrey Craig hit shots, Craig then smashed a recovery block and Malik Beasley dunked it on the other end, and Plumlee capped a 12-0 run to put Denver back up 45-43.

The Clippers fought back though as Lou Williams heated up, while Denver played through Monte Morris and Plumlee. Trey Lyles tossed the ball up from everywhere with 12 points in the quarter, while Hernangomez came in for some small ball paint presence. Monte Morris hit a three, then made a drive near the end of the quarter to go up 64-61 at halftime.

Denver’s bench comes back out to start the third quarter, but shot cold despite some good looks and ball movement. Denver lost the lead 66-64 a couple of minutes in, and despite some excellent opportunities the sloppy play caused Malone to spend a pair of timeouts in the first 5 minutes of the quarter with the Nuggets down 74-68. The Nuggets had too many turnovers and couldn’t buy a shot (3-for-15 to start the quarter) but kept playing hard and cleaning the defensive glass and somehow the game was knotted at 80 going to the fourth.

The Clippers started the final quarter on a 7-0 run as the Clippers kept it clamped down defensively, including a pair of blocks by Montrezl Harrell. Tom Welsh hit a jumper to jumpstart Denver’s scoring. Hernangomez banked in a shot, grabbed a rebound and laid in another bucket as Denver closed the distance. His rebound and assist to Beasley cut the lead to one at 90-89 Clippers with seven minutes to go.

The Clippers’ Wesley Johnson hit a pair of buckets out of a timeout though, and the Clippers led the rest out the way, closing out with a six point victory as the benches emptied to give the ends of the roster some more film.

Final Thoughts

This bench is a very steady unit despite tonight overuse. Our own Adam Mares thinks I’m over-hyping them, but they just look to have so many consistent elements. They have engaged defenders in Torrey Craig, Malik Beasley and Mason Plumlee. They have Lyles, Juancho Hernangomez and Plumlee for strong rebounding, with the potential for outside shooting at four positions and a bench point guard who just doesn’t get rattled. They can run pick and roll or some high-post offense through Plumlee or Lyles, which lets them morph as needed based on who they’re facing.

It’s a group with versatility and talent, and they keep surprising me with every preseason outing despite my belief in them. If there’s one thing that can take these Nuggets back to the playoffs that they haven’t had in years it’s a functional bench that takes advantage of its depth. Fingers crossed they keep this up in the regular season – and that they never have to play 24+ minutes of game time in a row again any time soon (the under 30% shooting effort in the second half on tired legs wasn’t pretty).

The starters need to get their mojo back. One preseason game left to look like the team that was the 6th best offense in the NBA last year, and the best once Jokic took over and dominated. This group has looked nothing like that yet, and that needs to change shortly, despite Malone playing it cagey and refusing to give the Clippers any direct looks at what they’ll be doing this year in the season opener. It’s very hard to just flip a switch when the season starts, so in the last preseason game the starters need to play with regular season intensity and execution levels.

And with a healthy, shot-making Jokic, please.