The Denver Nuggets were able to hold a lead after three quarters, but the star combination of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George was too much for the reserves to overcome in the final quarter as the Clippers clinced the 2-seed with a 124-111 win on Wednesday night.

Paul George had a big second half, finishing the game as the leading scorer with 27 points on 20 shots, while Leonard pitched in 26 points of his own. The Nuggets got 25 points from Jerami Grant, with Nikola Jokic registering a double-double with 17 points and 13 assists in 28 minutes.

Jokic got the scoring started in the game, stroking in a long 3-pointer from the right wing. Kawhi Leonard made a few jumpers for the Clippers, but both teams weren’t able to shoot straight, missing several jumpers. Michael Porter Jr. was able to get a nice block on Leonard on a midrange fadeaway, but the veteran got the upper hand on the next possession, drawing a foul on the rookie as he rose up for another jumper. The Clippers forgot to guard Murray in transition, and the Nuggets guard calmly drained a 3-pointer. Jokic turned an ankle trying to drive and score over Ivica Zubac, and the Nuggets called timeout after the turnover that lead to a Paul George dunk. Jokic got back-to-back buckets by going into the post, scoring on Zubac and JaMychal Green while getting fouled both times. The Nuggets made a point of going through their center, with Jokic getting hot and the ball was, indeed, popping! The second unit came in with about two minutes remaining, with Bol Bol getting some run at power forward. Monte Morris launched in a 3-pointer to give the Nuggets a lead, but a hoop and harm by Lou Williams on Bol gave the Clippers a one-point lead at the end of the first quarter. Jokic scored or assisted on 17 of the Nuggets 25 points, a strong start for our dude.

Bol Bol scored first for the Nuggets in the second quarter, but the Clippers were able to stretch their lead thanks to Lou Williams and Paul George. Bol snared a steal on defense, then went coast-to-coast for a nice dunk. Jerami Grant got his first 3-pointer of the game, but the offense really had a tough go against the Clippers, who turned up the intensity on defense with their second unit. Grant found a seam and finished way up high with a dunk after a timeout, tying the game at 36. Bol followed with a 3-pointer, but George countered with one of his own. Torrey Craig checked in and ran a dribble hand-off perfectly, missed the free throw, but Dad Millsap grabbed the board and Grant was able to get a bucket on the extra possession. The Nuggets were able to lock in on defense and help protect their lead, scrapping for points on offense against the Clippers starters. They made a nice play in transition, pushing after a miss to get Porter Jr. to the free throw line to make a pair. Porter took advantage of a mismatch against Reggie Jackson to close the half, easily draining a midrange jumper to give Denver a 58-50 lead.

The Nuggets got a 3-pointer from Craig at the beginning of the third quarter, but Zubac got a couple hustle points to keep the Clippers in the game. Leonard and George tossed in some shots, and they helped power a 10-2 run to tie the game up at 63. A timeout didn’t do anything to calm down the Nuggets, with Millsap voicing his frustrations after getting fouled but the refs swallowing their whistles and drawing a technical foul. Murray missed a 3-pointer, George hit one of his own, and the Clippers were able to grab a seven point lead before the Nuggets could score again. Jokic picked up his tenth assist on a drop pass to Millsap at the rim, with another on a 3-pointer to Craig, but they couldn’t get stops on defense and the Clippers hit the 30 point mark for the quarter with 4 minutes remaining. Jerami Grant helped fuel a Nuggets run, and was able to tie the game with a 3-pointer at 82. He battled for position in transition, and was able to bury JaMychal Green for a basket. Grant had an amazing finish to close out the quarter, driving for a soaring lefty dunk to give Denver a 2 point lead, 92-90.

Paul George was able to get to the rim at the start of the fourth, getting to the free throw line and then getting an easy dunk. Williams sliced through the Nuggets defense for a layup, and Coach Malone called timeout to reemphasize the need to get stops. Grant was able to get the Nuggets back on the scoreboard with a 3-pointer, but back-to-back buckets by Patrick Patterson pushed the Clippers lead up to 105-97, and Malone called another timeout. Denver couldn’t get their offense flowing, with their reserves out on the court, as Mason Plumlee and Monte Morris weren’t able to get the team into a good look. Bates-Diop was able to finish a layup in transition, going coast-to-coast after a miss by Leonard. The Nuggets reserves were asked to carry the load down the stretch against the opposing team’s starters once again, and weren’t able to overcome the combination of the Clippers star power.

Three Takeaways

Jokic looked great. The Nuggets goal for the final two games is to get their playoff rotation pieces into a good rhythm, establish chemistry, and fine tune their playbook. The coaching staff has to be happy with Jokic’s performance against the Clippers, with the big fella dominating on offense. When he wasn’t scoring, he was setting up his teammates for wide open shots. 17 points, 13 assists, and 7 rebounds is exactly what you want to see from him.

MPJ looked tired. The rookie has been asked to carry a large load on offense for the team, and it’s not something he was asked to do before the Seeding Games. He missed all four of his 3-point attempts, with a lot of his shots hitting the front of the rim. It’s understandable for him to be a little fatigued, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he got additional rest in the Nuggets final game, when they play the Raptors on Friday.

Jerami Grant shows his long-term fit with the Nuggets. Grant may not be the perfect NBA player, but he is an excellent fit with the Nuggets this year and many years to come. His ability to get vertical on offense gives them a dunk threat, he’s an improved shooter, and his ability to guard elite wings is invaluable. He had an excellent night for the Nuggets, with 25 points on a variety of shots. I hope he stays in Denver for several years.