The Denver Nuggets lost a really tough one to the Los Angeles Clippers, 102-100, squandering a 17-point early lead and falling down by double digits, then clawing all the way back before falling at the end. Jokic crossed the 14,000 point barrier for his career tonight with his 36 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists. Denver needed a little more execution from Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, who missed a few too many shots and free throws in a close game. Denver’s bench only scored 9 points and – despite holding the Clippers to 38% from the field – that wasn’t enough to top the 34 from the Los Angeles reserves to help Paul George’s 28 and Harden’s 20 carry the Clippers to the win. Denver coach Michael Malone got thrown out in the third quarter for arguing with the referees after a foul in MPJ’s landing zone went uncalled, but Denver just couldn’t find the right mix of personnel and execution down the stretch to pull out the victory, and may have cost themselves the top seed in the Western Conference as a result.

Game Recap

Michael Porter Jr. missed a corner three to start tonight’s affair, but Aaron Gordon got one to drop off a Nikola Jokic assist. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a three but Ivica Zubac and Paul George both got buckets for the Clippers. The Nuggets turned the Clippers over and hit the glass hard, making a couple more threes and with KCP’s transition layup leading to a 13-4 early lead. Denver kept it in motion with 13 of their first 16 points in transition after MPJ’s trailing three. Aaron Gordon had a great under-bucket block on one end and then a putback on the other end. Braun missed a three and Paul George made a bucket, but Nikola Jokic took and made his first shot nearly 7 minutes into the game. Porter’s three made it 23-8 Denver, Jokic busted LA’s attempt at a zone, but Norman Powell hit a 3 and Paul George made a jumper while Denver missed so free throws and were a little careless with the ball. Jokic put in a couple straight bucket even while Denver couldn’t make free throws, but again turnovers allowed LA to get a bit of transition going. Jokic stayed steady as a scorer in the second part of the first quarter though and despite a Paul George three the Nuggets finished up 31-20.

Powell opened the second quarter scoring with a driving layup, and then he and Amir Coffey both hit threes to close that 11 point gap to just three in the first two minutes of the quarter. MPJ turned it over out of a timeout and the Clippers dunked it, KCP turned it over but at least Westbrook returned the favor. MPJ got blocked but got the ball back and finally got Denver a bucket in the quarter. Gordon had a terrific transition bucket but Jokic had to come back in the game after a couple more buckets from the Clippers. Harden hit a three and then a layup, Porter and KCP answered with some paint finishes and made the score 41-40 Denver halfway through the quarter. Both teams had a brick-fest the next couple of minutes, until Jokic buried a deep three. Harden and Zubac both made buckets that Jokic answered with one of his own in the paint. Harden made 3 free throws off an AG foul, but Jokic answered with another three. Harden hit one of his own though and the Clippers went into halftime up 53-49 with Denver’s bench held scoreless through two quarters.

Aaron Gordon had a dunk and a free throw in the early going of the third quarter, and MPJ had a nice dunk off a Jokic assist, but those were the only bright spots in the first few minutes as the Clippers made threes and executed a nice screen game with Paul George going off for both buckets and assists to build a 66-55 Clippers lead 4 minutes in. AG had a scary fall but made a couple free throws, Zubac slammed home an oop for the Clippers, and Braun drove the hoop for one bucket then made a three after he stole a ball to close the Clippers lead to single digits at 70-62. Jokic missed a three as the Nuggets finally got a couple of stops, they just couldn’t make shots. Denver shot 4-for-14 in the third with Jokic going 0-for-4 before he finally made a paint jumper for his 14,000th point in his career. The Clippers played physically but Denver found some hustle at last and with Peyton Watson’s free throws and Jokic’s tip in the Nuggets finished the quarter down just 5 at 75-70.

Aaron Gordon made three free throws on a couple different trips to the line to open the fourth for Denver, while Harden and Coffey made jumpers for the Clippers. Gordon tipped in his own miss, but Harden and Coffey then made free throws and Jokic had to come back in the game with more than 8 minutes to go. MPJ finished at the rim after a Jokic entry pass and a foul wasn’t called, but missed a three he was fouled in the landing zone as well while Zubac got foul shots on the other end. Coach Michael Malone got tossed with techs for pointing that out very loudly, and the flurry of free throws put LA up 90-79. Christian Braun had a pretty baseline finish at the hoop, then KCP blocked a George transition off a steal, and Jokic got free throws to cut the deficit to 7. Jokic finished at the rim the next time down after a Harden miss, George made a layup but KCP hit a 3 to make it a 4-point game. George made a jumper to hold Denver off despite good defense from Watson, AG made a free throw for Denver as he kept getting fouled every time he was near the rack, and KCL buried another three to pull it to 94-92 after an AG block. KCP missed a couple shots, George got free throws and Zubac had a dunk, but Jokic’s paint bucket and free throw kept it at 98-95 with 1:46 to go. The Clippers turned it over, Tucker got a technical foul for the Clippers and Denver closed to within 1. Zubac made two free throws, then got fouled by Jokic for two more, but Jokic buried a three to make it 102-100 Clippers in the final minute when AG fell down for a turnover as he was going for a finish. Jokic had a buzzer three for the win but it came up short and Denver lost 102-100.

Final Thoughts

– Bench woes continue, unfortunately. Denver’s bench had zero first half points on just 4 shots while the Clippers went from down 11 after one quarter to up 4 at the half. There was a 17-4 run between the first and second quarter as the bench started filing in. We’re past the time where there’s anything to do about the full bench’s inefficiencies. Reggie only went 1-for-5 in the first half mostly with the starters, but he is the only willing shooter with the current bench rotation and it’s not working. The Nuggets have had to lean on Reggie far more often than they were planning to start the season unfortunately and it seems to have fully caught up to him now. Jamal Murray missing a couple dozen games made the load Reggie had to carry much bigger, and it’s been showing recently. When Murray gets back it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give Reggie some rest and let the rest of the bench rotation get used to the playoff configuration with Murray at the point, and at least one other starter on the court with him at all times. Solving the bench scoring is next year’s issue at this point – the Nuggets just need to stop the bleeding wherever they can to win these last few games and get to the playoffs with their rotation guys intact.

– It’s not just the bench. Denver as a whole shot 15-of-44 in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, and 3-of-18 from deep. They came out of the gate well to start the game but MPJ went 6-for-18 and 2-for-10 for the game. Aaron Gordon missed 6 free throws in a 2 point loss as the Hack-A-Gordon plan paid off for the Clippers and had a brutal last-minute turnover. Denver just didn’t have the legs or the execution tonight, and some of the discomfort led to 13 turnovers (5 from Jokic), with 10 of those on steals that started fast breaks for the Clippers. Denver’s late-game execution – normally their strength – just didn’t come together in this one and it cost them.

– Health is still the paramount issue for Denver in the last 2 weeks of the season. Aaron Gordon slipped down awkwardly in the final minute and I held my breath, remembering Jamal Murray’s blown knee. He got up and seemed fine despite the awkward stumble but that could have been a championship-ending disaster. Similarly, MPJ had Zubac in his landing zone and fell back awkwardly trying not to get a lower body injury in the last couple games of the regular season. Denver has to be healthy, and right now Murray is healing up while that burden falls on the rest of the starters to carry the squad to be efficient and effective when it matters despite it all. Tonight they couldn’t carry the load, unfortunately, but they escaped without obvious injury and that alone is a big win. The Nuggets aim is no longer the top seed, it has to be to get to the postseason with the starting roster healthy and prepped. It’s the only way they hang another banner – and when they’re all together they can absolutely do just that.