The Denver Nuggets squandered a 15-point first quarter lead and lost to the Los Angeles Clippers 111-102. Jamal Murray made his less-than-triumphant return with 23 points and 6 assists, Michael Porter Jr. had 9 rebounds and 18 points on only 8 shots, but Nikola Jokic went 9-for-32 putting up a 22 point, 15 rebound and 10 assist triple-double that was as ugly a game as he’s had in years. Paul George had 25 points, James Harden added 20 and Kawhi Leonard 17, but this really felt like a game that Denver lost with their ineffective playstyle dictated by their MVP in a rare bad game.

Game Recap

The Nuggets rolled out their full starting lineup for the first time in a month, and an Aaron Gordon drive led to a Jokic three. Zubac scored in the paint but Jamal Murray answered with a three himself. James Harden made an easy layup, but Jokic buried a second three from the other side of the court, and an MPJ save off a miss to Jokic led to a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope three as the Nuggets had good energy and movement early. AG forced in a shot off a baseline drive for a 14-6 early Denver lead and a timeout from the Clippers. It didn’t help as MPJ hit a three and AG banked in a two while Harden and Kawhi Leonard missed. AG hit a dunk while MPJ nailed another shot to match a couple of Kawhi shots, and Paul George made a three to cut it to 25-15 Denver. Porter buried back-to-back threes to force another LA time out with the deficit bck to 15. Denver’s bench took turns defending Kawhi with decent success, even as Jokic missed a few shots, and Reggie Jackson’s corner 3 kept the pressure on. A Peyton Watson steal turned into a Christian Braun dunk, and Denver finished the quarter up 36-21.

Murray was back in to start the second quarter as Denver worked around his minutes restriction, leading the bench unit in the non-Jokic minutes. Watson hit a couple of free throws, but Daniel Theis closed the deficit to 9 with his rebounding and shotmaking off the bench. The Nuggets bench went cold from the field until Murray threw an oop to DeAndre Jordan. Watson and Braun ran another steal-and-finish transition together, but Normal Powell buried a three to keep the Clippers within 8 at 42-34. The Clippers went to a zone as Jokic came back in and Denver stayed ice-cold in the second quarter from deep and the refs made some questionable calls on Denver defenders. Jokic missed a shot, Kobe Brown hit a three, and Denver’s entire 15 point lead was gone as the Clippers tied it up at 46. Reggie Jackson made a couple of free throws, but Paul George buried a three after another Nuggets turnover and the Clippers took their first lead of the game. Jokic had missed 9 shots in a row going back to the first quarter as the Clippers extended the lead to 55-48. Nikola made a shot at last to end an 11-0 Clippers run, then immedately put in an MPJ miss the next time down. Harden hit a three, bur Murray countered with a traditional three-point play, then finished a pick-and-roll with Jokic and Denver went into the half down four, 61-57.

Jokic hit a 14-footer to start the second half, then grabbed a steal and finished inside to quickly tie the game. Paul George made a tough turnaround over MPJ, but Denver started forcing some misses and both Jokic and Murray got finishes at the rim for 65-65 before George dunked baseline on Jokic. MPJ made another three, then hit a high-bank push shot to put Denver up 3. Murray buried a long corner 2 for a 72-67 lead and forced a Clippers timeout. Kawhi Leonard hit a three over MPJ, Murray backed down his defender for a 2, then somehow created space against Zubac with a stepback for another bucket. Jokic missed a couple shots but a Murray block saved them on the other end, and then MPJ dunked a missed Murray three off a steal. Paul George made a last-second three, and Denver struggled the rest of the quarter to make shots. Jokic was 8-for-25 for the game when he checked out with a minute left and Reggie Jackson hit a three over a Clippers zone while Denver’s defense stiffened up. A DeAndre Jordan block turned into free throws on the other end and Denver ended the quarter up 3, 82-79.

After some scuffling at both ends, Reggie Jackson hit a three that was answered by Paul George. Reggie hit a lob to DeAndre, but George hit another three and the Clippers were up 90-87 as Denver struggled against the zone. Watson got a nice help block on a George drive that turned into a Braun finish. Jokic had trouble buying either a bucket or a foul call in his favor until he got to the line to close the Clipper lead to just one at 92-91. He couldn’t make his paint shots though while Harden buried a three. Jokic got his ninth assist on an oop to Gordon, but a Murray turnover led to a Kawhi dunk and a 6 point Denver deficit.

Murray and Jokic finally finished a two-man action with a Jokic bucket, but Harden answered with a push shot at the other end. Murray made a paint runner, but Kawhi hit a stepback in the paint. The Nuggets just couldn’t get a stop to bridge the gap and KCP’s clanker off the edge of the backboard slammed a nail in the coffin. Denver lost 111-102 on one of the worst shooting performances of Nikola Jokic’s career.

Three Things:

Jamal Murray is back – but it’s not a panacea. Reincorporating Murray will take time and cause disruptions. MPJ was on fire in the first quarter, hitting three-pointers left and right, but got only one shot in the second quarter as Denver’s offense evaporated and finished with 7 makes on 8 shots – entirely ignored down the stretch. Jokic tried to score and failed often, even when he had shooters available to him. It’s just something the Nuggets will have to work out. MPJ cannot get his own shot, so Murray and Jokic have to look for him. The two-man game between Murray and Jokic is appealing but with Jamal on a minutes restriction it can’t be a full-game go-to, and Denver’s two best players completely ignoring every other option on the court might work when they can’t miss, but it’s a bad strategy when one is injured and one has a terrible game.

That was the worst game of Nikola Jokic’s MVP era. He had an ignominious triple-double with 22 / 15 / 10, but the standards are high for Jokic in Denver and going 9-for-32 is so unlike him that it’s baffling. There are games Jokic doesn’t have his shooting touch but he will find a way to make it work, setting up others and controlling the action on the court even without scoring. Tonight the game got away from him. He didn’t have his finger on its pulse and played the opposite kind of ball that we’re used to from the game’s greatest player. Even a maestro has to be allowed a false note, but having this game squandered down the stretch felt like the conductor falling into the orchestra pit. Not a sight Denver fans are used to, and not one they’re likely to see again for a while.

The Bench rotations still need a little work. This is related to Murray being back also, but the Clippers won the bench battle fairly decisively and that’s continues the issue of them getting outworked and overmatched. Julian Strawther had a particularly poor showing as Russell Westbrook really took it to that squad, but many of the individual performances on the night were decent. Reggie had 14 points, Watson and Braun were good together in transition and Watson in particular looked good on defense against LA’s long and strong future hall-of-famers. But it was a case where the sum was less than its parts in many ways, and getting that mix right while still building the players up for the future is going to give Malone some long and sleepless nights.

It was a tough loss because the first quarter looked so bright before everything fell apart. Nuggets fans can literally chalk this one up as a one-time freak accident with that Jokic shooting line and put it in the past, though. The important thing is that Murray is back and the Nuggets can build with that in mind going forward. Hopefully future games are a little less myopic and the return to playing Jokic Ball is pronounced.