The Denver Nuggets rolled into Los Angeles and got rolled by the Clippers, 132-103. Nikola Jokic had 21 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists in just 25 minutes, but only played 3 quarters as nothing went right for Denver. The Clippers out-shot, out-hustled and out-performed Denver at every opportunity, with a balanced attack featuring 6 players in double figures while Denver had just 4. Jerami Grant put up 20 points, but Paul Millsap and Gary Harris had just 4 combined in 46 minutes and Denver never found either the firepower or the defense to make the game even competitive.

Zubac opens the scoring with a five foot hook, with a reply from Jokic in the paint on the other end. Paul George hit a three, Morris splashed a two and Murray missed an open three. A Kawhi bucket made it 9-2 early as Denver struggled to finish, with Jokic finally cleaning the boards for Denver’s second bucket in the first four minutes. Another turnover and a quick four points for the Clippers made the lead 14-4 early for Los Angeles. Jokic snagged another bucket and Murray got Denver’s first non-Jokic bucket, but Paul Millsap turned an ankle on a rebound. Jokic got 10 of Denver’s first 12 to cut it to 19-12 but the lack of foul calls bothered him early. 

Jerami Grant came in and airballed an 18 footer, and Denver strugged to score and with overpassing against a long defensive team. Michael Porter Jr. came in and got a great block on Montrezl Harrell and threw a nice outlet to Grant but Denver looked sluggish in the first quarter. Harrell hit a layup for LA, Monte Morris and Porter hit threes and closed it to 26-20 with two minutes to go. The Clippers answered back with steals and buckets though, and it took a last-second putback by Porter to cut that lead to 10 after one quarter, 37-27. 

Monte Morris hit a bucket off a screen to cut that lead to 8, but Torrey Craig (in for Porter in an early move) blew a layup and the Clipper lead balooned back to 13. Barton his a three and Jerami Grant slammed home a dunk and a three but Denver just couldn’t cut the lead much below 10. Denver’s starters came back in but the lead remained 11 with 5 minutes to go when Gary Harris Eurostepped his way though the paint to make it 54-45 Los Angeles. Denver clawed back with more paint points from Jokic and keeping control of the ball. despite low assist totals. It was 58-51 with two minutes to go in the half, and Jamal Murray hit a couple of tough jumpers to keep that difference intact. Jokic botched a last second rebound, though, and the Clippers converted for a 10 point halftime lead, 66-56. 

Paul Millsap bounced a shot off the side of the backboard for a 24 second violation to open the second half. Barton hit a Jokic-assisted three to cut it to seven, but turnovers hurt Denver once again as Murray lost it on a drive and Millsap threw it out of bounds to no one. A Paul George three took the lead back to 14, 75-61. The Clippers went on a 9-0 run before Jokic finished a runner in the paint. Barton had a pair of turnovers against the LA pressure, and even while Denver kept battling the could not close it back. Jokic hit a Sombor Shuffle for his 21st point but Denver still trailed by 16, 86-70. Denver’s bench (sans MPJ) came in and did no better, with the Clippers swishing threes and out-hustling Denver for a 19 point lead after 3 despite a quarter-ending block from Grant.

The two benched exchanged buckets for the first couple minutes, but hustle and execution continued to go the way of the Clippers. Grant missed a transition layup thanks to a contest by a slightly-limping Harrell, and LA converted a three on the other end for the biggets lead of the game at 103-81. A Paul George 3 took the lead to 25, Plumlee got blocked on a dunk and Denver had no answer on another nationally televised game. Their record against above-.500 teams is very good, but in showcases it is not. Another thing to solve the rest of this season as the final 10 minutes of the game were all garbage time and Los Angeles won a laugher, 

The size and aggressiveness of the Clippers will be a problem in the playoffs. Will Barton had an especially tough time against the starters as he was too small to defend Paul George and could not get to the basket past LA’s long wings (or Pat Beverly). He and Paul Millsap still looked like they were less than 100%, but tentative play will get the Nuggets killed against the Clippers in every single game. Denver had just 19 assists for the game, with Jokic having just 2, and that’s with the Nuggets still shooting fairly well from every area of the floor. It was simply the pressure from the Clippers creating cracks, with hustle plays and rebounds all going to the team with the higher energy level. The Clippers came out like it was a playoff game and Denver struggled to match. It’s a good lesson to learn in the regular season – hopefully Denver can respond in the rubber match before the playoffs.  

Michael Porter Jr. playing 4 minutes in the first three and a half quarters can’t keep happening. Denver needs MPJ to truly contend, and he can’t blossom from the bench. He’ll has 11 or fewer minutes in three of Denver’s 4 games out of the All-Star Break. Porter needs reps with the top 7 guys for Denver – he’s got to learn to play next to Jamal Murray, not PJ Dozier. He needs to feel the sort of pressure the Clippers can apply with their long wings during the regular season so he’s not going into the playoffs to feel it for the first time. Barton’s shot will come back as he gets his legs back under him, and Gary Harris will always have his defense even if his shot comes and goes, but Porter is Denver’s X Factor and if they are unwilling to let him grow during these moments – especially whe he’s started off well and shows an aggressive feel early – then Denver is capping its playoff ceiling unnecessarily. 

Jokic is gonna need some help in these championship games, and it’s up to Malone to get it organized. Certain players cannot play large minutes together – it’s hard for Denver to score with Torrey Craig and Mason Plumlee on the court together against even LA’s bench for instance, and adding Grant to that as Denver did to end the third doesn’t help.

Michael Malone is a trust guy, and a defensive coach to his very bones. He would rather lose 95-90 than 125-120, but when he takes too much shooting off the floor in favor of his trusted defensive vets Denver struggles to keep it within those five points. 2017 Gary Harris would be amazing for this team, but Denver doesn’t have him back yet. Getting the right mix of scoring to help Jokic – who will not take 28 shots a game no matter what – while keeping the defense up is Malone’s problem to solve. Now that he has all of his options available it’s not just a matter of who can play, it’s who needs to play and when. Rotations are a Malone weakness, which a shorter rotation is supposed to help. He’s got some growing pains coming before April as well.